Monday, January 16, 2012

everyone makes mistakes -- even nevi'im

The Torah tells is that when stopped at an inn en route back to Mitzrayim with his wife and children, Moshe Rabeinu was attacked by some kind of angel.  Tziporah came to the rescue by doing milah on newborn Eliezer.

The Ibn Ezra (4:20) writes that we learn a fundamental idea from this episode: A navi can be wrong!  Moshe Rabeinu was the greatest of nevi'im, yet he obviously miscalculated in undertaking this journey with wife and children at that time.

(What exactly Moshe Rabeinu's mistake was is not clear from the text.  See Rashi that Moshe should have done the mila on his son before leaving, but Ibn Ezra suggests that the problem was bringing his wife and children along.  Their presence gave the impression that the geulah would not be immediate, but would take time to unfold, and Moshe did not want to be separated from his family for such a long period.  Moshe had no right to dishearten the people in this way.  Meshech Chochma along similar lines suggests that the Moshe brought his family as a way to prove to the people the geulah would happen -- he would not bring his family just to add to the slave population.  The very fact that he thought such proof necessary demonstrated Moshe's doubt that the people would as a matter of course believe him, even after being told by G-d that they are ma'aminim.  This lack of trust was an error.)

We find a similar idea in Sefer Shmuel (II:7).  When David haMelech consulted Noson haNavi about whether to build a Beis haMikdash, Noson told him to go for it.  (And let me remind you of the Minchas Chinuch (posted once before) that according to some Rishonim there is a mitzvah to listen to a navi even when he gives advice that was not received b'nevuah.)  Yet, that very night Hashem appeared to Noson and told him to go back to David and tell him to stop, as he did not have Hashem's permission to build the Mikdash.  Noson made a mistake in his original advice.

I don't think the Ibn Ezra means to throw out the mitzvah of listening to a navi, nor do I think he means to take a position in the Minchas Chinuch's safeik of whether there is a mitzvah to listen to the advice of a navi.  What he means is that EVEN THOUGH there is no greater source of insight than a navi, EVEN THOUGH one is commanded to obey the navi, that does not mean that navi is guaranteed to come up with the right answer.

One more EVEN THOUGH, which I think is the more important lesson for us -- The argument that since talmidei chachamim have erred at times in their judgment, therefore QED their judgment is not superior to that of a layperson and can be ignored, does not follow.  Just as a navi is the best person to consult on issues that relate to the future of Klal Yisrael, EVEN THOUGH he might err, a gadol b'yisrael is the best person to consult on those same issues EVEN THOUGH he might err as well.  

These mistakes -- that of Moshe and that of Nosson -- were no small errors.  Moshe Rabeinu's error put the plan of geulas Mitzrayim in jeopardy.  Noson's error was with respect to Beis haMikdash, the kodesh kodashim, the central point of avodah.   Hashem came to Noson and revealed his error; the geulah from Mitzrayim was directly guided by Hashem's hashgacha and would have worked out somehow anyway -- we don't have that benefit, so how can we trust our leaders?  How can we place our faith in their judgment when they have been wrong about issues of great magnitude in the past?  I think this question makes a wrong assumption.  Just because Hashem is not speaking from burning bushes or coming to people in dreams does not mean he is not working behind the scenes, ironing our whatever errors are made.  Jewish history and fate do not hang in the balance of our leaders' decisions alone, whether for good or bad.


  1. Eliezer12:50 PM

    This is the first time I've seen anyone use this approach. I've seen those who disparage the concept of consulting Gedolim for advice on worldly matters; I've seen those who say that Gedolim are beyond error and must be believed in whatever they say on whatever subject. You are the first, to my knowledge, that is sophisticated enough to say that there is a good rationale for seeking their opinions and following their advice, but that all the while we must remember that they might be wrong. Something Keats, Fitzgerald, and Lutwidge Dodgson/Carrol would all approve of.

  2. great unknown5:08 PM

    You are entering the realm of the "mistake" of ר׳ יוחנן בן זכאי in his dialog with אספסינוס

    This opens the avenue of the approach of the מהרש"א there, that the error was imposed by the רבש"ע as a consequence of the sins of כלל ישראל

    Thus, a chossid [even of the litvishe shnit] could say that if the Rebbe/Rosh Yeshiva/Godol gives you bad advice, it's your fault.

  3. Anonymous5:13 PM

    it seems Hashem Himself takes a
    position here on the Minchas
    Chinuch's safeik-- surely Moshe was
    acting on his own advice when
    travelling to Mitzrayim?

    if one says Moshe should've recused
    himself from deciding his own future course because of personal
    bias, then to whom should he have
    turned? should he have consulted
    Hashem, even if he'd no safeik of
    what to do? when can a navi (gadol, layman) trust himself to advise others or self, when not?

    perhaps this-- Moshe was set to recuse himself & inquire of G-d but finally doubted whether Hashem would answer him over a personal (not national*) concern (so didn't want to presume to ask, or didn't want to ask l'vatallah); but he should've known better-- 4:19 was indication enough that Hashem would speak even to his unspoken individual issues (devarim shebelev)...

    one might suggest that Moshe's 3 independent initiatives were tikkunim for the 3 sevaros here:
    declaring 3 days preparation at har
    sinai meant he trusted the people would believe him even to interpret
    Hashem's instruction, though he'd
    once doubted "that the people would
    as a matter of course believe him"
    even as to Explicit procedure; he
    smashed the tablets before leaving
    the mountain, for failing to destroy the foreskin "on his son
    before leaving"; Moshe separated from Tziporah, because
    he once "did not want to be separated from his family..."

    *Moshe's long argument with Hashem over whether to accept the initial assignment to redeem the nation,
    while full of personal reservations, was yet on a matter of national import

  4. G.U. -- The Ibn Ezra does not touch on why the mistake may occur. In the case of Moshe, it seems to be a personal judgment call. RYBZ was an error of planning on behalf of the klal. Perhaps the why depends on the nature of the mistake, the context, etc.

    E., I usually manage to work things out so no one agrees with me : )