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Often the Best Answer is No Answer at All

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah states that when one’s home is afflicted with Tzara’at (a spiritual ailment resulting from evil speech and other antisocial behavior), one should approach the priest and say: “Like a contaminated spot I have seen in the house”. Our Sages point out that the verse should have, in fact, stated: “I have seen a contaminated spot in the house.” Why should one say “like …”?

Our Sages learn an important ethical lesson from this and express it in the following terms: “One should train one’s tongue to say ‘I don’t know’.”

When a person is asked a question or for a piece of advice and a person is not absolutely sure of the answer, one may be tempted to provide an answer in defense of one’s ego. Consider the scenarios of a doctor, lawyer, financial advisor, or rabbi giving advice or offering an opinion. In all of these scenarios, the wrong advice ( based on ego) could cause death, pain, financial loss, and mental anguish.

Our Sages, therefore, have taught us that a person should get used to saying: “I am sorry, I really don’t know.” I have often marveled at the fact that the Talmud, comprising the greatest Sages of Israel, very often leaves a question unresolved and states that we need to wait for the arrival of Elijah The Prophet to clarify the issue. They were not ashamed or bashful of their limitations.

In truth, a lack of desire to say ‘I don’t know’ is not always based on arrogance but very often on insecurity and low self-esteem. Some of the most successful people I have met have no problem saying “I really don’t know” or “Sorry, this is not my area of expertise”. It is those who are insecure that very often cannot bring themselves to say “I don’t know”. Let us absorb the words of our Sages and, when not absolutely sure, let us humbly declare with pride “I don’t know.”