Rabbi David Lapin of I-Awaken on Pinchas

Jun 30th, 2010 by admin in Spiritual Growth
The Imperfection of Knowledge

Wisdom is mysterious and human knowledge is not absolute. There is a dimension of wisdom that eludes even the wisest of men. “Fifty pathways to wisdom were created in the Universe” says the Gemarra,[1] “and all were given to Moshe except one.” Human knowledge will always lack at least one dimension of understanding, and therein lies its mystery.

Wisdom is like an onion. Each time that new insights peels away another layer of ignorance or confusion, we find yet another layer of questions and mysteries. At its core, this “onion” of knowledge carries a secret, a secret known to no one but G-d Himself: the fiftieth gateway to wisdom.

This applies even when man must make halachik decisions or decide in a matter of justice between two litigants in a court of law. “Ki Hamishpat Leilokim hu”, says Moshe,[2] “for the decisions of Justice are ultimately in G-d’s domain.”

If this is so, how are we meant to make halachik decisions? Even if a judge, Poseik or Rav is inherently competent and qualified, how is he to decide on matters of justice if his knowledge is always incomplete, never absolute?

Intellectual Fearlessness

Moshe gives guidance on that matter in the same verse: “Lo Taguru mipnei Ish,” he says, “show no cowardice before any human.” This implies two character requirements in addition to academic competence and practical qualification. The first is a fearless intellectual independence; the second is an implied fear of G-d (do not fear any human, fear only Hashem). In addition to knowledge and wisdom, courage and Yir’at Shamayim are the requirements of a Poseik.

But if no Rav or Poseik can have perfect knowledge, and every person is missing at least one element of understanding and knowledge since even Moshe only grasped 49 of the 50 pathways to wisdom, how can he ever make a valid halachik determination? Moshe himself provides the guidelines: “Anything too difficult for you, bring to me and I shall hear it.” In this statement of advice Moshe erred;[3] an error that caused him severe and eternal embarrassment later on. This is the story:

Tzlofchad’s Daughters

Oddly, the Torah appears to originally have “omitted” a straightforward but necessary Halachah. We are told the detailed laws of inheritance barring what happens to a deceased man who leaves no sons but does leave daughters. The daughters of Tzlofchad are such a case in our Parsha. They reason that although nowhere does the Torah specify their rights to inheritance, this certainly ought to be the law. They put their argument before the lower courts of the nation[4] who, although they agree with the women, refer the case to a higher court out of respect for a Law that as yet had no precedent or code and would need to be innovated. The higher court in turn referred it up for the same reason, until it was referred to Moshe himself. Astonishingly, Moshe’s mind blanked and although the case should have been “cut-and-dried” he needed to refer it to Hashem. Hashem affirms the logic of the Tzlofchad girls, and records Moshe’s intellectual “lapse” for posterity.[5]

What was so wrong in Moshe advising the judges to bring difficult matters to him? Interestingly, Moshe did not say “if you encounter difficulty, bring it to me.” He assumed they would encounter difficulty and instructed them to bring those inevitable difficulties to him. Moshe assumed that other judges who did not have the privilege of studying the Torah from Hashem Himself, would surely not have the same level of knowledge needed to make halachik decisions. And herein lay his error: No one has absolute halachik knowledge, not even he. Absolute knowledge cannot therefore be a precondition for competent halachik decision-making. It is this latitude that gives a Rav the right to pasken (make halachik decisions) provided he has an authentic semichah (Rabbinic ordination) authorizing him to pasken and holds a recognized position[6] as a Poseik. This is so even if there are other rabbis whose knowledge exceeds his. Perfect knowledge is not a requirement. Competence is; Yirat shamayim (G-d fearing) is; and intellectual courage is.

Often as individuals we need to make decisions regarding our own lives, and we feel humbled and overwhelmed by the enormity of the decisions and their implications. In these situations it helps to be mindful that we cannot have perfect knowledge. We will err as even Moshe sometimes did. We will not be accountable for what we did not and could not have known. All we can do is be our best. Make decisions with as much information as we can and with a great deal of Yiras Shamayim and personal courage. We can also follow Moshe’s advice and avoid all intellectual cowardice and fear of public opinion, as we do what we know is right and follow it to the best of our abilities.

The Prominent “Nun”

This is the reason why the Nun (14th letter of the Hebrew alphabet) at the end of the word “mishpattan,” is enlarged.[7] Nun is numerically 50. It reminds us that no one but G-d could truly know all fifty dimensions of the law that applied to the daughters of Tzlofchad, nor any other law for that matter. Still, had Moshe not claimed superior knowledge, he would have made the decision. In effect the daughters of Tzlofchad themselves were able (though not technically qualified) to make the decision; the lower courts certainly could have made the decision. Perfect knowledge is not a requirement for halachik decision-making; nobility of character is.


[1] Rosh Hashanah 21a

[2] Devarim 1:17

[3] Of course were it not that Chazal themselves (Rashi Bamidbar 27:5)make this comment we never could, as no human being can grasp Moshe’s greatness, nevermind identify his errors.

[4] Tanchuma 9

[5] Sanhedrin 8a

[6] Whether formal or informal.

[7] Rabbeinu Bechiye Bamidbar 27:5

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