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Parshas Shoftim

Alright, All Right!
by Rabbi Yosef Levinson

"You shall not turn from the word that they will tell you right or left" (Devarim 17:11).

The Torah commands us to follow the teaching of the chachamim (Sages) and to listen to them even if they tell you that right is left and left is right (Rashi). The Ramban explains that even if you believe they are mistaken and it is as clear to you as the difference between your right and left hands, we are still obligated to heed their ruling.

How can one eat what he knows is forbidden, or kill an innocent person? If one knows that the Sages are wrong is it not a sin for him to follow their ruling? The Ramban answers that Hashem, the Supreme Commander commands us to observe the mitzvos in accordance with the view of the Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court). The Torah was given to us according to their interpretation even if they err.

This mitzva is of extreme importance. Since we were all given the written law but we do not all think alike, everyone would in theory, come up with their own interpretation. This would result in everyone observing their own Torah. Therefore the Ramban explains that we are commanded to listen to the rulings of the Sages. The Torah was given to us with the clause that the halacha (law) follows their understanding. Thus even if they would be wrong, they are still right! The Sefer Hachinuch adds that it is worthwhile that we err once to preserve the unity of the Torah otherwise the nation would ultimately disappear, for we are only a nation because we are bound by the Torah. This is also why the halacha follows the majority and the minority must accept the opinion of the majority of the Sanhedrin (Sefer Hachinuch Mitzva 496).

The Gemara relates the following episode. There was a dispute between R' Eliezer and the chachamim, regarding taharos (what is considered spiritually pure or impure). R' Eliezer ruled that the matter under discussion was tahor, pure, while the majority opinion was that it was tamei (impure). Even though R' Eliezer brought many proofs that the halacha follows his view, nevertheless the chachamim did not accept them. He then proceeded to alter the course of nature to convince the Sages. He said 'Let this carob tree, water canal and the walls of the Beis Medrash (study hall) prove I am right.' Immediately the carob tree was uprooted one hundred amos (cubits), or four hundred cubits. The water began to flow backwards, and the walls of the Beis Medrash began to lean. All this did not faze the Rabbis, and they responded that one cannot prove that he is correct from supernatural phenomena. For since R' Eliezer was a tzaddik, his request would have been fulfilled even if he was wrong. Finally, R' Eliezer said 'Let the Heavens prove that I am right.' A Bas Kol (Heavenly echo) then proclaimed 'Why are you arguing with R' Eliezer? The halacha always follows his opinion.' R' Eliezer had apparently proved his case. Yet, the Chachamim stood their ground. R' Yehoshua declared 'It (the Torah) is not in Heaven (Devarim 30:12). We do not listen to a Bas Kol because at Har Sinai we received the Torah and it is written, "According to the majority the matter shall be decided." (Shemos 23:2). Therefore the Rabbis who were the majority ruled that it is tamei and the halacha follows their opinion.

The Gemara concludes that Eliyahu Hanavi told R' Nassan that when R' Yehoshua ignored the Bas Kol, Hashem laughed and said: "My children were victorious over Me." The Chinuch explains that in truth, R' Eliezer was right, as the Bas Kol had demonstrated. However, since the chachamim were in and the majority and they did not agree with R' Eliezer's reasoning, the Torah's own clause dictated their right to override the truth. Thus the truth was defeated.

The Ramban also writes that although we must listen to the Rabbis even if they were incorrect, it is safe to assume that they are right and we are the ones who are mistaken. The leaders of the generation merit Siyata D'shemaya, Divine guidance in their rulings and Hashem protects them from making mistakes. This is evident from the following story.

A Holocaust survivor was permitted to remarry on the basis of evidence that her husband had perished in the concentration camps. Then, after more than twenty years, when she had grown children of marriageable age, she met her first husband. The distraught woman came to seek Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's guidance.

Reb Moshe asked the woman to tell her story. She told of how she had brought her case before a well-known rav in one of the Displaced Persons Camps after the war. Based on available testimony and evidence, this rav had ruled it correct to assume her husband dead, and had given her a document containing this decision. It was on the basis of this ruling that she had remarried. The rav had passed away not long after the war, and, due to the chaotic post-war conditions, she had lost the document. Now she and her family were suffering indescribably from a mistake that was not theirs.

Rabbi Moshe asked to repeat her story, and she did so. He asked her to tell it a third time. Why was Reb Moshe tormenting the poor woman so? Reb Moshe then rose, leaned across the table and said agitatedly to the woman, "It cannot be! I knew the rav of whom you speak. He was a gaon and a tzaddik, and I do not even approach his ankles in Torah. I have permitted over two thousand agunos to remarry and never did the first husband reappear. Now you are telling me that such a thing could have happened to that tzaddik? It is impossible! It cannot be!" The people in the room were shocked that Reb Moshe, who was famous for his mild manner and compassion, could have spoken in such a way to a woman in distress. But their shock gave way to incredulity when the woman broke down in tears and admitted that her story was indeed false. She had been sure that her husband was dead - how could he have survived, she had asked herself. When she heard that a highly respected rabbi had passed away, she made up the story concerning the document, using that rabbi's name. (Reb Moshe, Artscroll).

If we do not understand the words of the Sages, it is alright to question and search for the truth, but in the end, we must follow their teachings, then we will also be all right.

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