Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
In my naïve youth, it took me years of knowing The Princess Bride by heart to understand what Inigo meant here: he figured Vizzini must think “inconceivable” was a curse word, since he kept invoking it when things didn’t go according to plan. It took me even more years, and some time studying the story of Gidon, to realize that maybe there’s more to Vizzini’s reactions than meets the eye.
“Inconceivable,” a synonym for “unbelievable,” seems like something Gidon, the fifth judge in the Book of Judges, might have said repeatedly, too. Time after time, he expresses doubt at the divine message that he will be the one to save the Jewish people from their Midianite oppressors. That hesitation is certainly understandable when he doesn’t yet know the messenger making these promises is an angel – but he continues to waver between acknowledgment and doubt even as he gradually realizes to whom (Whom) he is talking (Judges 6:11-22). One moment, he is filled with a divine spirit and recruiting soldiers for his promised campaign (v.34-35); the next, he is asking for yet another miraculous sign that G-d will indeed save Israel “by my hand, like You said” (v.36).
How can Gidon doubt, and continue to doubt, Hashem’s promise? How can he repeatedly ask for proof? Isn’t the fact that Hashem said it enough?
Apparently not. In fact, a few verses later, Gidon asks Hashem to flip the miracle from verse 36, just to be sure – as if he thinks maybe the first time was a fluke. He had first left some wool out overnight and asked for it to be excessively wet from dew in the morning; the next night, he wants the wool to remain dry while the ground around it should be wet. (If I were ever to try this, I would immediately forget which thing I said should be dry or wet, and have no idea whether the miracle was done or not!)
Ralbag explains that he asked for these signs because “היה עדיין מאמין ואינו מאמין” – he still believed and didn’t believe. How is that possible, after talking to an angel and seeing clear miraculous indication of the divine presence? What did he believe, and what did he not believe? How can a person do both at once?
The phrasing of that last request – and no, it is not even the last proof Hashem offers before Gidon is finally ready to get going – is particularly striking: “Don’t be angry at me, and I will speak just this time [more]; I will test, please, just this time [more] with the fleece” (v.39).
“I will test” – really?
As several commentaries point out, there is a pasuk in the Torah that explicitly forbids doing what Gidon is asking to do: “Do not test Hashem, your G-d” (Devarim 6:16). So why did Gidon get away with it?
Radak explains, in the name of Rav Saadya Gaon, that there are different kinds of tests. The pasuk in Devarim forbids testing Hashem’s ability – and Gidon had no problem with that. He accepted Hashem’s existence and power; he believed. What he had trouble with, however, was the idea that “he was worthy of this great miracle.” There, he still didn’t believe.
Gidon didn’t doubt Hashem; he doubted himself.
And that, perhaps, is why Hashem was patient with him, lovingly guiding him through a process of acceptance, showing him step by step by repeated step that he really could do it, that whatever he previously thought of himself was an incomplete picture and he was the one for this job.
And what I realized, thinking about the differences between these realms of potential faith and doubt, is that maybe that’s ultimately what many questions of belief and disbelief come down to – not just in the religious or theological realm.
We hear a lot in the media these days about belief; in particular, the importance of demonstrating belief when someone says they have had a traumatic experience. We hear a lot about former heroes and role models being accused of wrongdoing (to put it mildly), andwe hear a lot about how terrible it is when people don’t believe the victims, when they don’t immediately and unequivocally denounce these people as antiheroes and terrible role models.
When I hear an accusation has been made against someone for whom I never had much respect, it is easy to believe it. But when a similar accusation is made against someone I formerly respected, I enter a state of “disbelief.” Not because I doubt the evidence or the person telling the tale; the difference would be there, I think, even if the exact same case were made, by the same people and on the same evidence, against each of the two individuals. In that scenario, what I am really doubting is myself. “But I thought…” “How can it be…?” “What am I supposed to think now? Can I trust myself to see the reality? What is real, and how am I to know?”
It might be, in the words of the great Vizzini, “inconceivable” – but because I am unable to conceive of it, not because I think it is actually untrue. Everything that happened in The Princess Bride to inspire Vizzini’s trademark exclamation was clear fact; he could see it with his own eyes. Inigo assumed he was saying “that can’t be!” and figured he must be using the word by mistake, since clearly each thing could be, and in fact, was. But maybe the guy who made Plato and Socrates look stupid (watch the movie if that doesn’t make sense!) knew his stuff, and was actually careful with his words: He didn’t say “It’s not happening,” but “I can’t wrap my head around how this could be happening!” I can’t conceive of this.
The disbelief was all in himself, not about the man in black or anyone else – the same way Gidon’s disbelief was about himself, not really about Hashem or His promises, even if it sounded that way.
The problem, of course, is that sometimes it sounds that way. Sometimes a person’s initial shock and disbelief – the state of being unable to fit this new information into one’s existing framework – comes across as disbelief in the person offering the information or in the information itself, even when really both are completely reliable.
When we find ourselves presented with a report, from maybe not a divine but a fairly reliable source, and it seems “inconceivable” – how do we react? Maybe we need to take a moment to figure out, before saying anything, whether we actually disbelieve the information, and by extension the person who shared it with us, or whether we are simply thrown into disarray at the possibility that things are not as we always thought.
And to walk in the other shoes for a moment: If we tell someone something, maybe something minor or maybe something heart-wrenching and major and even traumatic, and they seem to deny it – how do we react? Maybe, even in the midst of the pain, we can take a moment to figure out whether perhaps our audience simply needs some time to process. Maybe we can remember that sometimes, when the words or demeanor say “I don’t believe it (you),” what’s really behind it is “I am questioning my notion of myself and beliefs I have held dear until this point. I am beginning to doubt myself, and I might need more signs from you – maybe even a lot more – to reassure me that I am getting it right this time”?
Hashem was really unbelievably (see what I did there?) patient with Gidon, providing sign after sign and never once expressing anger. In the somewhat parallel story of Moshe at the burning bush, He did finally get angry – but, it seems to me, only when Moshe started doubting elements outside himself. Moshe’s first response to his encounter and mission is very similar to Gidon’s: Who, me? (Shemot 3:11) He then goes on to ask a lot of questions, and Hashem responds patiently to each. According to the midrash in Shemot Rabbah 3:12, it was at the moment when he directly contradicted what Hashem said that Moshe “spoke inappropriately” and deserved some some minor punishment for doubting His people. Hashem still doesn’t get really angry, though, until Moshe turns his uncertainty with the situation towards Hashem more explicitly, saying outright that He should send someone else (4:13-14). Perhaps this line was the final straw because it implied His choice of Moshe was actually wrong instead of just surprising.
As long as Moshe simply doubted himself, Hashem was patient with his hesitation; once he questioned Hashem’s people and even Hashem Himself, that was too much. Gidon, in contrast, never expresses doubt in Hashem directly; he never says “don’t send me; I can’t do it even though You say I can.” He does, however, need some help to wrap his head around the whole thing – and for that, Hashem’s patience is apparently limitless.
It takes a lot of strength for the small things, and maybe superhuman strength for the big things, but maybe we can work to emulate Him in this, recognizing the difference between “inconceivable!” and “untrue!” – and patiently guiding those we care about to be able to conceive of what we need them to believe.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.