Parashat Shelah: Appreciation with discretion

Sages are capable of making mistakes – and that is what this parasha deals with. This fact does not diminish the value of the wise, who are, after all, human beings.

 EVEN SAGES make mistakes. (photo credit: PXFUEL)
EVEN SAGES make mistakes.
(photo credit: PXFUEL)

In parashat Shelah, after the story of the spies who toured the Land of Israel and judged it negatively, so much so that the nation preferred to return to Egypt rather than continue on their journey toward the Promised Land, we read a halacha, a Jewish law, that relates to a unique case of a collective sin of idolatry on the part of the people, following an erroneous ruling by the Sanhedrin. In this case, a special sacrifice must be brought to the Temple to atone for the public sin. But the individuals who sinned as a result of the erroneous ruling are not required to bring a personal sacrifice to atone for their actions.

This is how the case is described in the Torah: “And if you should err and not fulfill all these commandments, which the Lord spoke to Moses. All that the Lord commanded you through Moses, from the day on which the Lord commanded and from then on, for all generations. If because of the eyes of the congregation it was committed inadvertently...” (Num. 15:22-24).

The commentators, based on midrashim of our sages, interpreted the phrase “and not fulfill all these commandments” as a sin of idolatry, since it is difficult to imagine a case in which the entire nation did not perform a single mitzvah. On the other hand, the sin of idolatry is considered a denial of all the commandments, since idolatry negates the basis of belief in the Torah and observance of the commandments. In this case, there is an obligation to bring a special sacrifice to atone for the sin.

What are the eyes of the congregation?

If you have read the verses quoted above carefully, you have probably noticed the unique expression “the eyes of the congregation.” This refers to arbiters of Jewish law, poskim, members of the Sanhedrin who were active in the distant past, until about 1,700 years ago. What is the meaning of the epithet “eyes of the congregation”? Rashi interpreted that it refers to “the elders who enlighten the people,” and other commentators wrote similarly. The sages of the Torah do not serve in the practical role of halachic decisors but function as leaders of the people, illuminating before the people the proper path. This epithet expresses an attitude of deep appreciation for the sages of the Torah and the arbiters of Jewish law who are likened to the eyes that guide a person where to turn.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

But surprisingly, this unique designation was actually used in reference to the law dealing with an unfortunate case in which the sages of the Torah issued an erroneous ruling that caused many people to commit such a grave sin as idolatry. Is this the place to point to them as “the eyes of the congregation”? To explain, let us examine a halacha taught by our sages in connection with this law.

The Babylonian Talmud discusses this law and writes that it does not apply in every case. The case in which a person obeyed an erroneous ruling – and the responsibility lies with the adjudicator and not the person who acted according to the ruling – is precisely when the adjudicator did not completely err and permitted idolatry but only when the adjudicator permitted a certain act with the mistaken understanding that it was a permissible act. If the members of the Sanhedrin instructed that it is permissible to worship idolatry across the board, one could not rely on their instruction. Each person is required to consider for himself whether such an absurd instruction is possible; and if he decides to obey the erroneous ruling, the responsibility lies with him (Horayot 3).

In other words, a person is called upon to obey the sages of the Torah out of a deep appreciation of their national role as “the eyes of the congregation,” and at the same time not to lose his personal judgment but to examine whether the ruling they gave meets the requirements of Torah/moral reasonableness. A wrong ruling is human, but a blatantly wrong ruling should set off an alarm bell for every person.

UNFORTUNATELY, WE often hear about various “spiritual” teachers who trap men and women in their nets and demand full obedience from them, even when the instruction given crosses the line between what is permissible and what is forbidden, and what is appropriate and what is obscene. Such cases cause confusion – should we obey or exercise discretion? Doesn’t exercising independent judgment violate the teacher’s dignity?

The Torah’s answer seeks to strike a balance between a deep appreciation for the sages of the Torah and maintaining independent judgment. Sages are capable of making mistakes – and that is what this parasha deals with. This fact does not diminish the value of the wise, who are, after all, human beings. We must appreciate the wise and see them as “the eyes of the congregation.” And yet, we must not lose independent judgment or our personal moral compass.■

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.