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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeira: Why do we have to listen to the sages if they are wrong?
"Being slow to anger" and "having a good heart" join together as pre-requisites for the next thing mentioned in the Mishnah, which is "to trust the sages". Disputes for the "sake of Heaven" did not affect the personal relationships between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel. The high standard of conduct between Torah sages throughout the generations requires them to honour and respect each other and hold their opponents in highest regard. Even if one feels certain that the sages are wrong, such as if they tell you that the right is left, or left is right, one must nevertheless follow their instructions. The Revelation at Mount Sinai, experienced by the entire Jewish people, is when the Jewish people saw with complete clarity the truth of Moses' prophecy. Only a person known to be a pious sage, and whose conduct was on a very high level, could be trusted if he would come and relate a prophecy. If a self-professed prophet makes the sign of a miracle and then tells us to go against what Moses taught us in the Torah, there is no way we will listen to this false prophet. For the Jewish people ourselves experienced the prophecy of Moses when G'd instructed him to teach us the Torah. The Torah instructs us to follow our sages even if they may be wrong. G'd sits in judgment on Rosh Hashanah depending upon when the Sanhedrin down here determined is the correct day for Rosh Hashanah, even if their calculations are wrong. This seems to apply only when there is room for two calculations or two opinions. We are obligated to follow the teachings of the sages, even if we feel that they are wrong, to ensure the unity within the Jewish people. The Rambam, in his introduction to his law codex, enumerates 39 generations from Moses to Rav Ashei and Ravina who edited the Talmud. At least one leader in every generation has a spark of Moses' soul. It is only possible to acquire Torah if we have full trust in our sages from Moses right down to our own generation.
Trust the sages
The last two qualities, that we quoted from the Mishnah, that one needs to acquire Torah are "being slow to anger" and "having a good heart". These two qualities join together as pre-requisites for the next thing mentioned in the Mishnah, which is "to trust the sages". Only a well-balanced, good-hearted person has the ability to trust others and accept their opinion, even if it is different than his own.
Disputes for the sake of Heaven
This is, first of all, important among the sages themselves who often have different opinions. This developed during the time of the rabbis of the Mishnah who often disputed each other. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 88b) describes how there used to be hardly any disputes and every question that was unresolved would be brought to the Sanhedrin. But at the time of the disciples of Hillel and Shammai, the generations deteriorated in their diligence and that is when the disputes became common. Earlier in Pirkei Avos (5:20), these disputes are described as being disputes for the "sake of Heaven". They did not affect the personal relationships between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel. As the Talmud (Yevamos 14b) relates that although they had many differences of opinion in Halacha, they did not refrain from marrying each other's daughters. The two houses had mutual love and respect for each other.
Untainted Torah transmission
This has been the high standard of conduct between Torah sages throughout the generations. They will honour and respect each other and hold their opponents in highest regard. And when this was not the case, the consequences were catastrophic. When the students of Rabbi Akiva lacked in their mutual honour, the Talmud (Yevamos 62b) relates how a whole generation of scholars was Divinely punished and Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 disciples perished. The continuous transmission of Torah from one generation to the next must be untainted. Only people of the highest integrity, with sterling characters, can be part of this unbroken chain.
Right is left
Only in this way can we be expected to have complete trust in our sages and their teachings. The Torah (Devarim 17:11) commands: "According to the teaching that they [the sages of the Sanhedrin], teach you and according to the judgment that they say to you shall you do. You may not deviate from what they tell you, right or left." Rashi quotes from the Sifri (paragraph 154) that even if you feel certain that they are wrong, such as if they tell you that the right is left, or left is right, you must nevertheless follow their instructions.
This needs clarification. Why should someone do something he feels is wrong just because the sages tell him to do so? In order to answer this we must first analyze some basic Torah concepts. The Rambam (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah 8:1) writes that the Jewish people did not trust Moses because he performed supernatural miracles. For such trust is not solid since sorcerers also can do acts that are supernatural, or at least appear to be so (see Shemos 7:11, 22 and 8:3, 14). All the miracles that Moses performed were to fulfill a certain need, not to prove the truth of his prophecy. So on what basis, asks the Rambam, did the Jewish people trust Moses? He answers that the Revelation at Mount Sinai was experienced by the entire Jewish people. Every individual present heard how G'd instructed Moses to speak to them. This is when the Jewish people saw with complete clarity the truth of Moses' prophecy. As it says (Shemos 19:9): "And G'd said to Moses, 'Behold, I shall come to you in the thickness of a cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever.'" An entire generation, says the Rambam, who themselves experienced Moses' prophecy had absolutely no need for any miracles to prove his honesty and truthfulness.
Trusting other prophets
The Rambam continues to explain that this obviously applies only to Moses. So on what basis were the other prophets trusted? The Rambam (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah 7:7) explains that a new prophet would make a sign by performing a miracle in order that the people should know that he was Divinely sent. However, that on its own would never be sufficient. Only if a person was known to be a pious sage, and his conduct was on a very high level, he could be trusted if he prophesized. The Rambam continues to explain that this is still not 100% clear proof that the person is actually a prophet. But just as the Torah instructs that a Beth Din should rule on the basis of the evidence of two witnesses, although they might be false, in the same way the Torah has instructed us to trust a sage who is known to live on a high spiritual level when he prophesizes. As it says (Devarim 18:15): "A prophet from your midst from your brethren … to him you shall listen."
The Rambam concludes that our trust in our prophets is not based on any miracle performed by them, but rather it is based on what we are instructed to do by the Torah. Therefore, if a prophet performs some miracle and then suggests that we should go and do anything against the Torah, we may not listen to him. This, says the Rambam, is comparable to two witnesses coming to testify in regards to something that the judges saw themselves. Obviously, if the witnesses' account differs from what the judges saw, the judges should not make their decision based on the witnesses' testimony but on what they themselves experienced. In the same way, if a self-professed prophet performs a miracle and then tells us to go against what Moses taught us in the Torah, there is no way we will listen to this false prophet. For the Jewish people ourselves experienced the prophecy of Moses when G'd instructed him to teach us the Torah.
Follow sages even if we think they are wrong
The Torah teaches that a Beth Din shall base its judgment on the evidence of two witnesses, and to listen to a prophet as long as he does not suggest that we should go against what the Torah teaches. In the same way, the Torah instructs us to follow the rulings of the sages, and not to deviate to the "right or left" of what they say. Even if we find out later that the witnesses did not tell the truth, the Beth Din did the right thing when they ruled according to their evidence. Similarly, if it later becomes clear that the self-professed prophet had not received his prophecy from G'd, the Jewish people were correct to conduct themselves according to the prophecy, as we are obligated by the Torah to follow what he said. In the same way, the Torah instructs us to follow our sages even if they may be wrong. But in regards to the sages, the Torah goes a step further. By commanding us not to deviate to the "right or left", we are obligated to follow what they teach us, even if we feel convinced at the time that what they teach to be "right" is actually "left".
Rabbinical court determines the Festivals
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 25a) relates, in great detail, an example of such a situation. It once happened that Rabbi Joshua had calculated Yom Kippur to fall on a different day than Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin that was seated in Yavneh. Rabban Gamliel sent a message to Rabbi Joshua instructing him to show up in Yavneh with his staff and purse on the day Yom Kippur fell according to Rabbi Joshua's calculation. Obviously, Rabbi Joshua was very distressed, but the other rabbis told him that whatever the Sanhedrin decides is the day of any of our Festivals, even if their calculations are incorrect, their decision is binding for everyone. As it says (Vayikra 23:37): "These are the Festivals of G'd that you shall proclaim." The rabbis pointed out that "you shall proclaim" indicates that G'd has given the authority to establish the Festivals to the sages in the Sanhedrin, even if they are mistaken. This is an incredible insight for that means that G'd sits in judgment on Rosh Hashanah depending upon when the Sanhedrin down here determined is the correct day for Rosh Hashanah, even if their calculations were wrong. The same applies to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and all the other Festivals.
Room for two calculations
This seems to apply only when there is room for two calculations or two opinions. For example, if a doubt arises about a certain cut of fatty meat from a kosher animal, whether the fat is permissible or not, and the sages in the Sanhedrin have ruled that one may eat it, if another sage is of the opinion that it is prohibited, even he himself may eat it. For, says the Ramban (Devarim 17:11), G'd has instructed us to follow the ruling of the Sanhedrin. But if the Sanhedrin makes a mistake and permits something that has been established to be prohibited, in such a case if another sage realizes their mistake, he may not follow their decision (see Jerusalem Talmud Horiyos 1:1).
The Ramban explains that the reason why we are obligated to follow the teachings of the sages, even if we feel that they are wrong, is to ensure the unity within the Jewish people. However, this only applies to the Sanhedrin. Since the dissolution of the Sanhedrin some time after the destruction of the Temple, no single Beth Din has such authority. Nevertheless, in every generation the Jewish people have merited to have great sages and scholars to lead and guide us in every aspect of our lives.
39 generations of transmission
At the revelation at Mount Sinai, G'd gave us the Torah in two parts, the written law and the oral law. As it says (Shemos 4:12): "And G'd said to Moses, 'Ascend to Me to the mountain … and I shall give you the stone tablets and the teaching and the commandment …'" The Talmud (Berachos 5a) explains that the teaching refers to the written law and the commandment refers to the oral law. Moses taught everything to his disciple Joshua and the rest of the Jewish people. Joshua in turn taught what he had learned from Moses to his disciples, and so on throughout the generations. The Rambam, in his introduction to his law codex, enumerates 39 generations from Moses to Rav Ashei and Ravina who edited the Talmud. We have an exact account of who was responsible in every generation for transmitting the oral law of the Torah, both before it was written down and in the Mishnah and the Talmud and since then.
Spark of Moses' soul
The Kabbalists explain that at least one leader in every generation has a spark of Moses' soul. This is the deeper meaning of when G'd promised Moses that the Jewish people "will also believe in you forever". It did not only mean that all generations would accept the Torah. G'd's promise to Moses included that in every generation the Jewish people will acknowledge these true Torah leaders and believe in them. It is amazing to see how even secular Jews know who to turn to when they need help and guidance. Both in Israel and in the Diaspora, one will find long lines of Jews of all dominations seeking blessings and advice from the Torah leaders.
True Torah leaders
It is only possible to acquire Torah if we have full trust in our sages from Moses right down to our own generation. We all have the sense and ability to know who our true Torah leaders are. In Parashas Vayeilech (Devarim 21:21), G'd promises that the Torah will not be forgotten from the Jewish people. This promise includes that G'd will make sure that every generation will have the leaders suited to guide us, for only in this way do we have a guarantee for the continuity of Torah-true Judaism.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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