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Shoftim

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In this weeks Parsha, Parshat Shoftim, we are instructed to recognize the central role the Rabbanim play in leading Am Yisrael.

9. And you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge who shall be in those days; and you shall inquire; and they will tell you the word of judgment. 10. You shall do according to the word that they will tell you, from that place which G-d will choose; and you shall be careful to do according to all that they will teach you. 11. According to the teaching which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do; you shall not deviate from the word which they tell you, to the right or to the left. 12. And the man who acts presumptuously, not listening to the priest who stands to serve before your G-d, or to the judge, that man shall die; and you shall destroy the evil from Israel. (Devarim 17:9-12)


Our commentators note the interesting phrase: you shall not deviate . . .to the right or to the left. It is particularly noteworthy since earlier, in Pasuk 10, we are already instructed to observe to do according to all that they will teach you. What then is added by these words? The commentators are divided in their understanding.

Rashi suggests that this phrase implies that even if they say that left is right, or right is left you should still obey them, and give them authority. This raises obvious difficulties, are we really supposed to listen to them even when they say the opposite of what we know to be true? The Yerushalmi (Horayot 1:1) certainly does not agree and states explicitly that you must only heed them when they tell you that right is right and left is left. The Sifra, which Rashi is quoting, may help to solve this difficulty with a few additional words not mentioned in Rashi.

The Sifra explains that even if the Rabbanim tell you that what appears to you to be right, is actually left and vice versa, you have to obey them. These additional words soften Rashi's
explanation by suggesting that we are in fact dealing with a subjective opinion. In these few additional words lies an important message in modesty. Too often we judge a situation without knowing all the facts. Therefore we are told to recognize that it is often our own lack of understanding, believing what appears to be a certain way, which brings us to a mistaken sense of what is right. It is only our subjective lack of knowledge that causes us to think that they are calling something left which we perceive to be right.

On the broader question of rabbinical authority, I would like to focus our attention on the Peirush of the Meshech Chochma here, because he teaches us all an important lesson. The Meshech Chochma points out that this statement here looks to the future. Over time, he says, new situations would arise which would need to be addressed by Halacha. He suggests that the Torah here vests the Rabbanim of each generation with the prerogative to institute and derive Pesak, thus enabling the Rabbinim to respond to the issues of their time. Ultimately, this prerogative becomes central to the transmission of Torah and Halacha for all generations.
We have understood the authority of the rabbis to call left right as a statement of our humility in the face of their judgment. They are given the authority to deal with the new situations which arise in each generation.

But perhaps it goes farther still. We listen to the Rabbis because in declaring something left they actually make it so. This radical idea is beautifully expressed in a number of cases in the Gemara, perhaps one of the most famous being Tanuro Shel Achnai the oven whose state of purity was subject to debate. (Baba Metzia 59:). Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Yehoshua argued the issue and the members of the Sanhedrin fell in behind one or the other. While Rabbi Eleazar was of the minority opinion, he was quite sure that his understanding of Halacha was correct. He wished to prove the correctness of his position by calling upon various miraculous
signs, which indeed occurred. However, despite the miracles he remained in the minority.

The Halacha, which follows the majority of Rabbanim, would not follow his opinion. But Rabbi Eleazar was undeterred. In his final argument Rabbi Eleazar said, "If I am right, a voice from heaven will prove it." And down came a voice from heaven saying, ma lechem Rebbe Eleazar shehalacha kemoto. bekol makom? - What have you got against Rebbe Eleazar? Surely you know that the law is like him in every case? And Rav Yehoshua stood up and looked to heaven and said: "You already gave us the Torah, Ribono Shel Olam and in Your Torah You wrote Lo bashamayim hi! - The Torah isn't made in heaven! It's made down here on earth! You and Eleazar against a group of Rabbis - the group of Rabbis win.

And so, Rabbi Eleazar was outvoted. The Gemara goes on to describe how one of the Rabbis subsequently met Eliyahu. He asked Eliyahu: "What did HaKadosh Baruch Hu say when He was sitting in heaven at that hour?" And Eliyahu said: Mchayech ve'omer nitzchuni banei. HaKadosh Baruch Hu sat there smiling and saying: "My children have defeated Me!

This is an amazing story which is a direct consequence of the instructions we are given here in our Pesukim. HaKadosh Baruch Hu vests the Rabbis with an authority which is so absolute, that He is willing to let them overrule Him!

This as an essential, fundamental component of Judaism, because it changes the nature of man's involvement in Torah from being passive recipients to being active interpreters. Perhaps that describes the power vested in the world of sages, our Rabbanim. What Hashem in essence does by giving this power to the Rabbanim is that He Kivyachol, moves back to allow space for man to grow and to become partners in the dialogue between heaven and earth, the dialogue which we call Talmud Torah. Because when we learn Torah we enter
into a meaningful relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. We hear His voice, assimilate it and interpret it. It is our Rabbanim who guide us in this interpretation, but the responsibility to be active partners in the learning becomes incumbent upon us all.

We are entering into a new academic year as we welcome the students of Midreshet Moriah 5768. Ellul is our time to prepare ourselves spiritually for the upcoming year. When we are at Midreshet Moriah, the Torah learning is provided for us, and we simply have to open ourselves up to the encounter. The real challenge is to maintain Torah learning beyond our time at Midreshet Moriah, when we are busy with other endeavors. I would like to suggest that this giving of authority to the Rabbanim was a way of teaching us that to be a committed Jew one needs to actively engage in Torah learning. Lo BaShamayim Hi. It was gifted to us by HaKadosh Baruch Hu, but the only way to really make it ours is to enter into a relationship with it, through learning and connecting to Torah regularly. May we all be Zocheh to have a year filled with learning, and growth in our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

 

 

 

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