Where’s my hat?
Albert Einstein said: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Mark Twain said: “My father was an amazing man. The older I got, the smarter he got.”
Absolute knowledge seems to elude us. No matter how much we learn and experience, it seems an ever growing quantity of information remains beyond our reach.
This brings us to the Torah portion of Tzav (and the holiday of Purim). The word “tzav” is found at the root of the word mitzvah which means commandment. The dictionary defines the word “command” as “to direct authoritatively.” At times, we may fully or partially comprehend a commandment’s rationale while at times we may have no inkling whatsoever. Yet the very nature of a commandment is that it must be followed regardless of personal preference.
Why is this?
Among the topsy-turvy type features of the Purim holiday are dressing in costume and drinking schnapps “ad d’lo yada” — until one cannot distinguish between “blessed is Mordechai” and “cursed is Haman.” But an alternative and perhaps deeper rendering of the words “ad d’lo yada” is to “know that you do not know.”
Seven hundreds years ago, Rabbi Yediah Hapnini wrote: “The ultimate purpose of knowledge is to know that we don’t know.” While technically, knowledge means to “know” something, it comes with a contradictory quality; the more we know the more we come to realize how much more there is that we don’t yet know.
In the past century there has been a veritable explosion of scientific knowledge. Millions of scientists across the globe study ever narrowing fields of research. And yet, the greater and broader their discoveries become, the more they realize how much remains unknown. In effect, the relative unknown keeps increasing!
This “knowing” that we don’t really know is a fundamental lesson of Purim which is reflected in the tradition of “ad d’lo yada”.
The Megillah tells us that the Purim heroine, Esther, fasted for three days before approaching the Persian King Achashvairosh to request his intervention on behalf of her people. This, despite the fact that she knew with certainty that it would diminish her physical attraction and threaten the very heart of the mission which depended on finding favor in the eyes of the king. Now, why would she undertake such a counterintuitive course of action?
It was because she understood that no matter how much you plan, the outcome is never exactly as you imagined it would be. If history teaches us anything, it is that you can shoot an arrow but cannot determine where it lands. Indeed, Esther concocted a plan to thwart the wicked plans of Haman. But this plan was secondary to the more important matter of finding favor in the eyes of God. So she, along with the entire Jewish nation, prayed and fasted for a full three days. Sure, it weakened her and took a toll on her beauty, but she knew that the best of plans could not succeed without God’s help. And it was this which ultimately led to the salvation of the Jewish people.
I came face to face with the limitations of knowledge recently in an unusual way when I walked home from shul on Shabbos with my younger son. When we arrived at home, my son proceeded to place his hat on a table. Later, when he couldn’t find it where he left it, my older son suggested to him that he might have forgotten it in shul, but he was adamant that he had not — a fact to which I attested. He knew that he had worn the hat home; he knew that he had put it on the table; he knew that he had not moved it since; hence someone else must have. He continued searching but became very agitated since no one would admit to the obvious, that they had touched it.
Later that evening, I walked into the shul and noticed the impossible: His hat was resting peacefully on a chair. What had happened? It turns out that he was correct about every detail of the story without exception. But — and there’s always a “but” — he had mistakenly worn someone else’s hat home and that’s why he could not find “his” hat!
We read in Psalms that “it is better to rely on the One above than in nobles.” We may think that we know it all. But even when we plan and execute to perfection, it may turn out that we were wearing the wrong hat.
Like Esther, let’s keep thinking and never stop believing. Embrace mitzvot and allow for the guiding hand from on High to direct us toward the realization of individual and global purpose, leading to the coming of Moshiach speedily in our time.