I was thinking last week about how we know things without knowing how we know them.
As I was leading my Monday night group in discussing the family origins of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam, the question of the Levites’ exemption from Egyptian slavery arose. I knew that they had been exempt but the only source I could summon up at the moment was a note in the Artscroll Haggadah — hardly authoritative!
But I was perfectly sure of the fact. And it made me think of how often I authoritatively assert something or other, only to discover (when I’m called on it) that it’s swirling around at the bottom of my brain unconnected with any source.
There are a bunch of problems here. Of course, the obvious big one is: I might be WRONG. Being wrong is bad; being wrong in front of a bunch of people is horrifying. This is why every time I agree to speak on any topic anywhere, I have to fight an impulse to flee down the hallway to the nearest exit, hoping that no one pursues. So far, I have always managed to defeat the impulse but still…
Another problem is failure to acknowledge the real source. There’s halachah about this; it’s not just a careless lapse when I don’t attribute a fact to its source. The halachah traces back to Esther’s acknowledgement of Mordecai as the source of her information at one point in the Purim story. This kind of failure makes me itch.
The next problem is that, even if I’m right, the lack of sources undermines the value of what I say. After all, if it’s just me talking, what value will people place on the information? I’m always happier if I can give chapter and verse from some Official Authority.
Given all this, it’s a wonder I ever open my mouth. But as you know, I do.
PS It’s Ramban’s comment on Shmot 5:4 that alludes to the Levites’ exemption. But I had to Google (oh, shame!) to find it.