Can we Avoid Doubt?

:רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וְהִסְתַּלֵּק מִן הַסָּפֵק, וְאַל תַּרְבֶּה לְעַשֵּׂר אֹמָדוֹת

In Pirkei Avot 1:16, we read: “Rabban Gamaliel used to say: appoint for thyself a teacher, avoid doubt, and do not make a habit of tithing by guesswork.” 

Rabban Gamaliel’s statement returns to a theme of appointing for yourself a teacher that was taught in the more famous Mishne 1:6. His statement ends differently than the previous version, which concludes “acquire for yourself a friend and judge people with the scale weighted in their favor.”

So, what does Gamaliel mean by directing us to “avoid doubt”? One possibility is that we should avoid the hubris of believing that we can make the right decisions on our own. By learning from those who know more than we do, we can be better prepared to make the right decisions. Additionally, by relying on teachers for help, we can reduce our anxiety that we might be doing something wrong. It is comforting to share the burden of decision-making.

Tithing is the practice of giving 10% of our earnings to charity. Most often this is tied to agriculture but it can be expanded to other activities. This statement, by following the previous one, tells us that we will be better able to accurately measure the proper amount to tithe if we learn from an expert in Jewish law. 

However, I think that the statement about tithing is telling us something deeper. Is it such a big deal if we approximate the ten percent we need to give? An experienced farmer probably can pretty accurately gauge ten percent of the corn crop. Does it matter if we give 9.5% or 10.5%? Probably not. I think Rabban Gamaliel is commenting instead on human nature. The more we leave things to chance, the more likely it is that we will make a mistake. Instead, if we measure, we are putting in the proper effort to get it right. We can transfer this habit to other contexts; it is better to be certain about the right thing to do than to guess. 

In the final analysis, I find this teaching somewhat lacking. I’m in favor of finding teachers and learning from those who have more life experience. Additionally, in most cases, we shouldn’t leave things to guesswork. But avoiding doubt is not an attainable goal. We can do our best to learn everything we can and listen to mentors. However, at the end of the day, there is always doubt, and we can’t let uncertainty paralyze us. Living with doubt is hard, but is necessary for navigating our lives. Shabbat Shalom.



Categories: Director, Dvar Torah, Shabbat