The Right Not to Know

“Knowledge is power,” goes the knowing cliché. Like most clichés, this is true. If you knew what your bargaining partner’s fallback position was; if you knew whether or not she really loves you; you’d be more in control, more the master of your fate.


But only up to a point. Imagine that you knew everything. Imagine that you knew exactly when and exactly how you will die. That you knew, in advance, the details of every twist and turn in your marriage — the cause of every quarrel and the timing of every reconciliation. Imagine that all the actions you will take in the course of your lifetime were listed like entries in a giant captain’s log, with the results of each action noted at its side.


Would you feel that you were in control of your life? Or would you feel like a pawn being walked through the steps? Knowledge may bring power, but absolute knowledge brings utter powerlessness.


In the 49th Chapter of Genesis we read how Jacob, before his passing, summoned his sons to his bedside, promising to reveal “that which will happen to you in the end of the days.” When they gather round, he blesses them and assigns to each his role as the progenitor of a tribe within the people of Israel. Nothing, however, about what will happen in the end of the days.


Our sages explain that Jacob intended to reveal to them the time of the coming of Moshiach (the Messiah). But at that moment, “the Divine Presence departed from him.” Jacob understood that he’s not supposed to tell.


So life’s most urgent question remains a mystery. We know that the world will one day come to reflect the infinite goodness and perfection of its Creator. We know that our every positive deed is a step toward that goal, a brick in that glorious edifice. But when will it happen? Why can’t we see the finish-line approaching, why can’t we behold the rising edifice?


Some would say that this is G-d’s way of keeping us under His thumb, so to speak. Perhaps if we knew too much, if we saw exactly how our every action and choice fitted in the master plan, we might take too many liberties, developing our own assessments of the goal and our own ideas on how to get there. So better keep man in the dark, so that he plod on toward his destiny in oblivion.


The truth, however, is the very opposite. It is precisely because G-d desired a creative, independent-minded partner to His endeavor, that He made life the mystery that it is. If we were consciously aware of the ultimate significance of our every action, our actions would be lifeless and mechanical — rehearsed lines recited by rote in a play whose script has already been read by every member of the audience.


It is only because each of our deeds, choices and decisions stands out in stark relief against the background of our lives, its train of causes and effects trailing off into the darkness of an unknown future, that our choices are truly ours, our decisions a true exercise of will, and our every deed is a meaningful contribution to our partnership with G-d in creation.