We Never Know

One of the Platters lesser-known songs, but one of my favorites is: “You’ll Never Know.” What makes this song special to me is the richly melodic repetition of the title by the group’s late bass man Herb Reed.

The song speaks to me because in life we sometimes never know the impact for good or for ill our words and actions have on others.

As a Rabbi, I have spoken in front of many people over the last half century. Sometimes, I confess, I wonder what if any impact my words have. I am sure many of you occasionally ask, as I do, “What’ the point?”  What’s the point of all the time, the blood sweat and tears we put into our work?

It doesn’t matter what line of work you pursue. At times it all seems meaningless, and we harbor thoughts akin to those that begin and permeate the Book of Ecclesiastes:  Vanity of vanities …Vanity of vanities everything is vanity. Of what useful purpose is all the work that we do under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1)

My thinking on this question has been enriched by an observation our son Leo recently shared with me. After a successful career as an Educator and Principal of an inner-city elementary school that he founded, Leo made the decision to undertake the arduous five-year course of full-time study at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles to become a Rabbi. It was not an easy decision, and only the love and support of his wife, Liz, and his two sons made it possible. 

Leo and I frequently debate the merits of Abraham, and often we must agree to disagree. But this year Leo shared an insight from the writings of the late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, that sheds new light for me on the “Vanity of vanities…” question.

Abraham is renowned for his faith in God. But what makes his faith so special is that he had faith even when the outcome of his journey was far from certain.

Specifically, when God instructed Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, he was uncertain of what the outcome would be. And yet he found the courage to go on. In so doing he in partnership with the Eternal One taught the world of the horror of human sacrifice (a lesson, as I have written elsewhere, we still struggle to learn).

Viewing Abraham’ and Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah this way, comforts me on my journey through life, and I hope it will comfort you.

We “never know” what the outcome of our efforts will ultimately be. But if, despite that uncertainty, we walk the path we believe God wants us to pursue, we have the best chance to fill our lives with purpose and meaning.