Knowing that You Don’t Know
PurimBurst, 1999 / 5659
Sarah Yehudit Schneider
Many of the peoples of the land became Jewish, for the fear of the Jews was upon them…the enemies of the Jews hoped to have power over them, though it was turned to the contrary, and the Jews had rule over those who hated them..
Tsadok HaKohen: When one nation receives a teaching from another nation that they incorporate for their benefit, this assures the latter’s victory over them should conflict later arise. This mechanism can preempt the need for war altogether, but either way, with or without a battle, it is what guarantees the lamb’s secure coexistence with the wolf. Paradoxically, in regards to Israel, the primary agents of this process are the wayward Jews who have strayed from the flock. Because they live among the nations and daily mingle with them, the Torah’s lights, that seep from the soul of every Jew, pass from them to their non-Jewish neighbors and a subversive transfer of teachings occurs…[And so Rav Tsadok HaKohen reads the above verse from Megillat Esther with a slight twist.] “MANY OF THE PEOPLES OF THE LAND BECAME JEWISH-LIKE FOR THE FEAR OF G‑d that THE JEWS inherited from their forbears, and that Mordechai embodied at that time, radiated out from the Jewish citizens scattered throughout the lands and ELEVATED the hearts of THE NON-JEWS with an expanded capacity to fear G‑d.” Because the nations benefited from them in this way, the Jews were victorious in their subsequent battles.
A burning issue at this point in Jewish history is how to passionately and uncompromisingly devote oneself to truth, and yet share space with those who adamantly assert a conflicting truth, and even, perhaps, a false one.
One of the first tragedies of the Purim story was when Esther, a holy Jewish maiden, was taken from her people and forced to marry Achashverosh, an idolatrous king. And yet, when Haman’s plot for exterminating the Jews issued from the king’s palace, Esther was in the position to dismantle his scheme. At that point Mordechai says, “Who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you came into your queenship?”
Both Mordechai and Rav Tsadok HaKohen present a formula for resolving our dilemma. The secret is: to know and to know-that-you-don’t-know both at the same time.
Rav Tsadok knows that Jews should stay in the fold and devoted his life and teachings to keeping them there. And yet, he also knows that he can’t completely fathom HaShem’s mysterious designs, and that the most despicable sinner among us could be the unwitting instrument of a Divine mission that will ultimately save the Jewish nation in the end. Still, this knowledge doesn’t temper for an instant his commitment to reform that sinner in whatever way he is able. And similarly, Mordechai was tormented by Esther’s forced intermarriage and yet also realized, “Who can know…[HaShem’s mysterious design]?”
A Biblical verse captures this paradox, “The secret things belong to HaShem our G‑d: and what is revealed to us and to our children forever, is to do all the words of this Torah”. The first half of this passage implies that HaShem brought each soul down into a particular body and set of life circumstances to accomplish a series of life tasks, and only He knows whether a person is fulfilling his assignments or not. “These secret things are disclosed to HaShem alone.” No one from the outside can know; even the person himself is generally unsure whether he is accomplishing his life’s work.
The second half of the verse teaches that HaShem gave the Torah to the Jewish people as a uniform code that applies for all times, and that He wants every Jew to fulfill its commands, without exception.
These are contradictory teachings, yet they are both true. If we are to follow Mordechai and Rav Tsadok’s precedent, then we must translate them into earnest affirmations and hold them both in our heart at all times.
I dedicate my life to serving G‑d through Torah and mitzvot, and to bringing myself and others into greater conformity with spiritual law as explicated by the Torah’s written and oral traditions. I know that any progress made in this direction is positive and G‑d serving.
I-know-that-I-don’t-know what any other soul needs to be doing in order to fulfill its personal covenant with HaShem. I can have theories, but I can’t know. Whether a person responds to my tugs to come close to Torah or not, whether he moves slowly or quickly or high tails in the opposite direction, I cannot know whether that soul is making exactly the decision it must to accomplish its G‑d given mission.
And yet, whatever decision this person makes, I am bound by the first side of the paradox to continue to do whatever I can to bring them close. And, as much as I know that half of the truth, I-know-that-I-can’t-know the mystery of what precisely HaShem needs from that person in any given moment. Perhaps they are on an undercover mission and must temporarily pose as a non-believer. “Who knows…?” Back and forth, again and again, one runs between these two truths that oppose but never cancel each other.
May the lights and joys of Purim stretch our heart-minds till they can hold the paradox of knowing and knowing-that-we-don’t-know both at the same time. This need not change the content of our words, only the tone by which they are spoken. May the humility born from this process create the space for every Jew to see the light and to freely orient to it, instead of being pressed into a reactionary corner by the foul wind of arrogantly stated half-truths. May we find our center, both individually and collectively, the place that can hold all the disparate parts of ourselves in grace and joy and peace and love, the place that can hold our holy Mashiach and draw his revelation into the world now.
 Esther 8:17 – 9:1
 Rav Tsadok HaKohen, Tsidkat HaTsadik, 69.
 Esther 4:14.
 Deuteronomy, 29:28.