Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Va'etchanan
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

R. Avraham Ben David

Va'etchanan - Belief in our Sages

1. Va'etchanan 2. Not to deviate from the words of the sages 3. Confusion of this commandment 4. Not to perform this commandment is unthinkable 5. Solution to our confusion


Rabbi Moshe Eliya

Av 5761
1. Va'etchanan
2. Not to deviate from the words of the sages
3. Confusion of this commandment
4. Not to perform this commandment is unthinkable
5. Solution to our confusion

This week's Torah Portion deals with the different aspects of Am Israel's position. Some verses describe the uniqueness of Am Yisrael over other nations. Other verses describe the specialness of the Am, which is derived from Hashem's absolute and irreversible selection of Am Israel as the chosen nation, regardless of their deeds. The word Seguli (cherished, treasured) denotes the eternal connection between Am Israel and Hashem. This connection was initiated by the Holy one blessed be he as can be seen in the daily Torah blessing ("asher bachar banu.."). Hashem chose us as his nation and only afterwards granted us the Torah. We also see in this Torah portion the requirement of the Am to keep Hashem's statutes (mishpatim) and laws (chukim) in order to establish its part in this eternal partnership. Miracles exclusive only to Am Yisrael and to no other nation are also revealed.

In connection to the verses that describe our practical obligation of the Torah there is
a warning to "beware and guard yourself well, lest you forget what your eyes have seen", and therefore "take care not to forget G-d's convenant with you". Thereafter the 10 commandments appear, representing the basic concepts of the convenant, and immediately following is the verse "You should keep what Hashem has commanded you and not stray to the left or the right". In other words there is a specific commandment not to deviate to the right or the left. We are familiar with this particular commandment from a different Torah portion in the book Dvarim in which we are commanded not to depart from the wisdom of our sages to the left or to the right.

We are, therefore, accustomed to saying that a rabbi, sage, or judge represents the word of Hashem, just as the verse states "upon the judge which is in those days". The Gemmorah further explains that "every generation and its judge, every generation and its sage". And so we have seen up to this point the complete commandment not to stray from the word of Hashem or his messengers, which are the sages and Rabbis of each generation.

In Rashi's famous commentary on this verse "not to stray" he states that "even if the sage says to you right is left or that left is right one should believe him". This commentary needs clarification. Is abiding by the sages and not straying from their word a dogma in Judaism so engraved in stone that it cannot be questioned? One could further ask -doesn't this commandment negate man's unique and personal discovery of his place and pathway within Judaism? Aren't we, as individuals, obligated to develop our abilities, strengths and internalization of our worhip according to our own personal connection to Hashem? Does this commandment, thereby permit or nullify the idea "to know your Father your G-d and his deeds"? The Rasag indicates in his introduction to his book "Hanevchar Bamunut Vdayot" that this obligates us to "first know Him then worship Him."

In other words, this commandment, not to stray, is liable to teach man to disregard his personal pathway and worship of Hashem!
One could question further: Since we have laid to rest all of man's individual responsibility and awareness by obligating him to "believe the rabbi or sage even if he says the right is left and the left is right" what can we say if the Rav makes a mistake which could be as a result of the student's viewpoint, or perhaps his lack of knowledge about a particular fact?

Although these are difficult and extensive questions, the dangers and damages that could occur as a result of not accepting, abiding by or listening to the sages could fill many books, a topic we will not go into at this time. Instead, we will concentrate on the question of what is each person's individual responsibility to his life and what to do if the rabbi is mistaken?

This confusion may be cleared up through the disagreement (perhaps not necessarily a disagreement as stated by many of the more recent rabbis) between two approaches- one of education and the other of the Yerushalmi.

The educational approach claims that even if it is clear that the rabbi is mistaken) although it could be the the student is the one mistaken) one still believes in him and accepts his word on the basis that our faith in the sages is built on the unbroken chain of their leadership of Am Yisrael from generation to generation. If everyone were to do whatever he wanted a break in the cohesive nature of the community would be liable to occur.

Therefore, acceptance of the rabbi's mistake is preferable to this potential destruction. The Yerushalmi approach introduces an important and fundamental aspect in the education of following the sages. Whereby the rabbi is seemingly mistaken, most likely it is as a result of the student's mistake. Because this is a rare occurrence one should take extra precautions not to dismantle belief in the the rabbi. In this situation one should not concern himself with whether or not a mistake has been made, but rather with the famous axiom "The rabbi's interpretations or the student's interpretations, who should we follow?" It is clear one should heed the rabbi.

However, most of our existence is not like this, and one should not create doubts in our sages. The problem is not whether there is a mistake but rather, how the student and the rabbi view the world. The student with his own limitations stands opposite the rabbi and while remaining in his own world may see the opposite of what the rabbi sees.

The rabbi points with his right hand and the student sees the rabbi's left hand. The Yerushalmi approach therefore states that we should be educated with great faith in the sages. Most of the work of being educated is not from the perspective that the rabbi is mistaken, as this occurs infrequently, if at all. Rather, from the realization that most of life is based on disagreements as a result of different perspectives, such as the student who stands opposite the rabbi and perceives things differently. What is required here from the student is not to stubbornly stand in his place, but to strive to understand and identify with the rabbi and thereby to change his viewpoint. The benefits of this act will be twofold: 1) Just as a man who labors hard, the student will not negate his responsibility for himself. 2) After the student learns to accept new viewpoints, to have faith in his rabbi, and reveals such to others, he will find that his rabbi is correct.

Thus, we see that the student keeps the commandment of complete faith in the sages, and simultaneously builds his individual character.
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