In my high school Humanities class, I remember being very impressed when I learned about the Socratic Paradox: “To know what you do not know, that is true knowledge.” In fact, I discovered recently, Socrates never said such a thing.
The idea may come from a passage in Plato’s Apology. Socrates gets into a discussion with a man who is reputed to be wise. He walks away from the encounter disappointed.
“I am wiser than this man,” he muses, “for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”
In Greek philosophy, the the hero of wisdom is Socrates. He is so wise, because he knows that he does not know anything.
The Jewish equivalent is, of course, Moses.
At the very beginning of this morning’s parashah, Va’etchanan, Moses describes to the assembled Israelites how he tried to convince God to change the verdict against him. He pleads to be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
Moses’s formal request begins with praise.
אֲדֹנָי יֱ-הֹוִה אַתָּה הַחִלּוֹתָ לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת־עַבְדְּךָ אֶת־גָּדְלְךָ וְאֶת־יָדְךָ הַחֲזָקָה
“My Master, Adonai, You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand”
Why does Moses include the word, hachilota—”you have begun.” He could have just said. “You have shown Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.” Since no word in the Torah is superfluous, it must add something important.
To understand the p’shat, the plain sense meaning of the expression, we have to look at this passage in its context. Earlier in Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses has recounted the Israelites’ travels through the wilderness over the previous forty years. He has already used variations of the word hatchalah, meaning “beginning.”
The Israelites’ conquest has begun on the Eastern side of the Jordan River. They have been victorious over King Sihon and the Amorites, as well as King Og and the Bashanites, capturing their lands. Two and a half Israelite tribes step forward, requesting permission to settle in the newly acquired lands: Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe. This territory will become part of the new nation. God instructs Moses. Re’eh hachiloti—”See, I begin by placing Sihon and his land at your disposal.” Hachel rash!—”Begin the occupation; take possession of his land!”
As Etchanan opens, the conquest has already begun. The Israelites, with God’s blessing, are on a roll. So Moses is thinking, “The Lord must be in a pretty good mood. Now would be a good time to ask for my punishment to be lifted.” He signals this hope in the language of his prayer:
My Master, Adonai, You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for what god is there in the heavens and on earth who could do like Your deeds and like Your might? Let me, pray, cross over that I may see the goodly land which is across the Jordan, this goodly high country and the Lebanon! (Deut. 3:24-25)
Moses sounds really hopeful. He is not asking for much; just to look at the land, to see how good it is. He is not going to touch anything. Promise.
Even this is too much. “But the Lord was wrathful with me because of you,” he tells the Israelites, “and he did not listen to me. And the Lord said to me, Rav L’kha—Enough for you! Do not speak more to Me of this matter. Go up to the top of the Pisgah, and raise your eyes to the west and to the north and to the south and to the east and see iwth your own eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan” (Deut. 3:26-27)
Such a disappointing answer for Moses.
Reading this passage out of its context, the Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth century founder of Chasidism, teaches a deeper lesson about Moses’ request.
“You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”
Moshe Rabeinu was the greatest of all prophets. Not only does he receive the Written Torah at Mount Sinai, he also receives knowledge of every single innovation that future scholars are destined to discover. As it says in the Talmud, “There is nobody greater in good deeds than Moshe Rabeinu.” (BT Berachot 32). Despite all of this, Moses still stands at the very beginning. So he says to God: “You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”
Moses is not referring to the conquest of the land. He is referencing something much greater: the mysteries of creation, the wonders of the universe, the nature of good and evil, the purpose of human existence. Moses, the greatest of all prophets, has only caught a glimpse. Nearly 120 years old, he still stands at the beginning. Adayin hu omed bahat’chala.
Here is Moses, at the end of his life, acknowledging to God, “I have only just started learning these mysteries. I want to know more.”
God responds, perhaps not with so much anger: rav l’kha—”it is enough for you. There is a limit to what the human mind, even yours, can comprehend. Ascend the highest peak, and look in every direction. You will see everything that you are capable of seeing. But you cannot cross over.” In other words, you cannot increase your wisdom.
Moses is the paradigm for the ideal human beings. He lives for 120 years, which the Torah identifies as the upper limit of human life. He achieves the greatest wisdom of which human beings are capable, and he demonstrates the highest imaginable levels of virtue.
His struggles, as creatively interpreted through Jewish tradition, are universal human struggles. Here, at the end of his life, he realizes that he is just starting. There is so much that he does not yet know.
This humility about the limits of knowledge is so important. It is what drives scientists to uncover how our universe works. It is what drives curiosity and growth. Someone who thinks he or she has all the answers, ironically, has none.