Unknown Unknowns and Tish’a B’Av 5774

It is a sad truth of Jewish history that times of trouble unite us in a way prosperity never can. Sad as it might be that that’s what it takes, we should recognize and enjoy the wave of national solidarity we are now riding.  The outside threat is so clear, the heroism of Israelis in general and soldiers in specific so palpable, stories of remarkable salvation so frequent that, despite being in the time of the year when we recall the Destruction, we can also sense much to relish and hope to continue, throughout and beyond this war.

I offer my thoughts here in anticipation of Tish’a B’Av, in the hope that these ideas contribute to our focusing where it will be maximally helpful in each of us finding our role in fostering the kinds of togetherness we have seen and hope to see going forward.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously noted that aside from what we know, and know we don’t know, there are also “unknown unknowns,” problems or issues we don’t even realize we aren’t seeing. In a less political context, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation, discussed a similar idea in his recent Creativity Inc., where he lays out the challenge of creating a corporate culture alert especially to that which they don’t realize they aren’t seeing.

I mention awareness of the unknown because three striking sources we come across at this time of year suggest it is an important factor in our religious lives as well. Like Ed Catmull, that realization might productively lead us to work to foster environments in which we can be more aware of the problems and failings we currently don’t see.

Moshe Rabbenu Remonstrating with the Jewish People

The book of Devarim opens with a listing of places that are ostensibly where Moshe was giving his final speech. But Rashi follows the strand of interpretation that thinks these are veiled references to places the Jews had sinned against God in their journey to this point.

We always read that on the Shabbat before Tish’a B’Av, and Rashi’s comment to the third verse speaks to issues in our generation as much as his or the Sifrei’s.  Rashi notes that Moshe Rabbenu waited until the fortieth year in the desert to remonstrate with (or rebuke) the Jews for all they had done wrong.  In this, he was following the example of Ya’akov, who didn’t remonstrate with his children until close to death.

The idea appears in Sifrei Parshat Devarim 2, which says that Ya’akov worried his sons would leave him for Esav if he spoke to them too soon.  Sifrei then gives four more reasons to wait until the end of life to give a whole accounting of relationships: 1) That the person need not repeat the remonstration, 2) that the recipient of the rebuke not feel embarrassed when the two meet up again, 3) that there not be tension between them over the rebuke, 4) that they separate from each other (permanently, with the death of one of them) in peace, since rebuke or remonstration ultimately brings peace.

Rashi mention others who followed this example, including Yehoshua, Shmuel, and David with Shlomo (Sifrei adds Avraham and Yitzchak with the Plishtim). In all these cases, the leader waited until the end of his life to reveal some of the issues he thought needed adjustment or perfecting.

And We Didn’t Realize

It struck me this year, in the context of other thoughts, that that also means the Jewish people were likely unaware that there were continuing issues, in each of those cases. They might have said to themselves, yes, we’ve sinned in the past, but that was back there. And Moshe, Yehoshua, Shmuel, and others were there to tell them that in all those cases, the past wasn’t dead, it was right there with them.

Since that is a recommended model for leaders, it means that we might all be walking around not being told that which the leader thinks should be held back. One of my great regrets of my time with Professor Twersky, a”h, was that he had this habit of speaking for a bit, and then trailing off, considering whether to continue. Often, he would not, and I would know he had decided we weren’t ready for what he was about to say. And it was lost to me.

The upshot is that we can walk around for years and decades thinking we’re fine, not realizing that our leader has issues he (or she) feels constrained to wait to raise, for the reasons Rashi and Sifrei noted. We might have unknown unknowns.

So a first Tish’a B’Av question: what are our flaws, as individuals and communities, that our leaders are holding back on pointing on, because it would inefficient or ineffective to raise? These could greatly advance our project of getting closer to what Hashem wants for us, if only we could access it. What would our leaders say if we were open to what they felt the need to tell us? How do we allow them to feel that it would be comfortable and productive to share with us that which we’re not seeing?

Missing the Gorilla in the Room

The haftarah we read for the Shabbat before Tish’a B’Av offers perhaps an even more troublesome model for how we might be blind to areas that need to change. In the first chapter of Yeshayahu, the prophet famously complains about how many sacrifices people bring, wondering– in Hashem’s Name– who asked them for this.  The obvious answer is that Hashem did, since offering sacrifices fulfills Biblical commandments, so what does Hashem mean by this complaint?

The answer comes in the next few verses, when the prophet reminds them that their hands are full of blood (which Rashi takes literally). Even if we soften it, by claiming that it wasn’t actual murder, it was their denying or delaying justice for widows and orphans, (as the verses also note), it is still a stinging criticism: they had become so wrapped up in sacrifices, one aspect of Hashem’s Torah, they had lost sight of other crucial issues.

It’s Not Just Sacrifices

We might read those verses and mentally commend ourselves that we don’t make that error, that we don’t emphasize sacrifice over social justice.  We might even go a step further, and assure ourselves that we don’t emphasize any ritual over social justice (if that’s true).

But to do that is to lose sight of what the prophet was actually saying to the people, which was that they had allowed their view of religion to skew from what it should be. The people to whom he was speaking plausibly reacted with shock and disbelief, confident in their religious excellence– because, after all, they were offering the right sacrifices and, in their worldview, that was the essence of being a religious person.

The question for us isn’t whether we emphasize sacrifice or ritual too much, it’s more subtle: what are the areas of religiosity we allow undue importance, leading us to neglect other areas that also require our attention? We might even emphasize social justice too much, allowing it to crowd out other areas. We might emphasize Torah study or the recitation of Psalms, or acts of kindness, allowing any of those to overwhelm other also necessary parts of Hashem’s service.

And the key challenge is that we might not see it, and might reject it when we’re told about it. (As I wonder whether the Jews did in Yeshayahu’s time, certain that sacrifices were in fact all or most of what Hashem cared about, and) As I can show happened in Yirmiyahu’s time.

Unshakeable Certainty

It’s a story I’ve highlighted before, and I don’t want to overstay my welcome on it, but one piece fits well with these two. In Yirmiyahu 45, the prophet is in Egypt, with the Jews who had insisted on leaving Israel despite Hashem’s assurances that they could safely and fruitfully stay in Israel (through Yirmiyahu, which they had specifically asked for and promised to heed).  He rebukes them for sacrificing to the Queen of Heaven, noting Hashem had sent prophets for generations, warning them of the consequences of their idolatry. Now, with the consequences having come to fruition, they are continuing these ways.

Shockingly (I feel a little shocked each time I think about it), they deny Yirmiyahu’s view, and say it was their failure to properly sacrifice to the Queen of Heaven that had brought on their troubles. So that, after forty years of Yirmiyahu’s prophecies (and those of all his predecessors), after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, after flouting the prophet’s words and fleeing Israel, they were still sure their religious lives had to include the Queen of Heaven.

The Tish’a B’Av Lesson

My premise in reviewing those sources is that, much as we celebrate the national progress we’ve made recently, the best way to further that is to find other candidates for improvement. What the parasha, the haftarah, and the story in the aftermath of the Destruction remind us is that we can so close ourselves to the truth that even our leaders won’t share it with us. Or we might close ourselves to others’ telling us that our religious emphases are leading to the neglect of other religious values.  Or we might have invested our religious energies—confidently—in that which is actually in opposition to Hashem.

My best wish for all of us for this שבוע שחל בו, this Week of Tish’a B’Av,  is that we each, as individuals, communities, and larger groupings, find the way to let our eyes be opened to that which we need to see, that which we would be best advised to change, there where we can most productively grow, so that we merit the full Redemption, speedily in our days.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.