Dvar Torah Shoftim: (Mis)Direction

We find in this week’s parsha one of the most  poorly understood verses in the entire Torah.  In fact, it’s so misunderstood that it makes heretics smile with satisfaction and the people who watch the heretics smile wonder why they themselves never became one.

Lo sasur min hadavar asher yagidu lecha yamin u’smol” — “…do not deviate from what they [the members of the  supreme rabbinical authority] tell you to the right or to the left.” (Deuteronomy 17:11)

But perhaps its not so bad — many have leaders, parents and bosses who warn them not to deviate an iota from the instructions they provide.  However, as if this was not enough fodder for the cynic, Rashi seems to come and make matters worse.

Afilu omer lecha al yamin shehu smol v’al smol shehu yamin” — “even if they tell you that right is left and left is right.”

Now that is exceedingly dogmatic, quite fittingly defined by Wikipedia as “something authoritative…not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from.”

Judaism is about reality, but such an explanation flies immediately and directly in the very face of reality!  How can we so stubbornly tolerate imposed mistakes and how can it be God’s desire that left be made equivalent to right and vice versa?

Unfortunately, yeshiva rebbes and morahs play into this deception too often, waving their fingers and saying things like “Chazal were never wrong.”  As a terrible consequence, we have entire communities espousing the religious virtues of fellow commenter Shlomo.  But these inattentive masses advocating mindless nonsense over thoughtfulness and insight do not just happen — they are developed intentionally, often because it is easier to make stuff up than explain the difficult material.  “Why must everything be so complex with you, DRosenbach?”  That is their mantra.

But that’s not what Rashi meant.  As the Maharal and others explain, what Rashi meant by this was to explain the doctrinal phenomenon by which the Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme court) was able to forbid that which is biblically mandated and, in far fewer situations, permit that which is biblically forbidden.  No shofar on shabbos…but the Torah doesn’t say that!  Ah, but Chazal did and we are to trust their ruling even though it appears to reverse reality.

It is in that sense, then, that Rashi said what he said about things being called their opposites — it is strictly a reference to permitted and prohibited.  But many people mistake this verse as an absurd statement affirming the infallibility of the court.  If they rule that something is permitted when it is really prohibited and one knows that the court ruled in error, it is that person’s religious responsibility to refrain from following the court’s ruling!  The Talmud (first chapter of Horayos) explicitly discusses this situation and rules according to the majority against R’ Yehudah that transgressors are liable for sin-offerings in appropriate situations, despite being misled by the court’s erroneous ruling — how the more so if the individual recognized the court’s error and still complied.

Did Rashi not know this piece of Talmud?  He probably did, seeing how he provided commentary for the entire tractate, so it’s exceedingly likely that the Maharal’s explanation of Rashi is not wishful thinking.  And the same can be said for the words of Nachmanides, which also appears, at least initially, to affirm that which generates an increase in the cynic’s blood pressure.  But the very example he chooses — that of the defiant Rabban Gamliel in Rosh Hashana (25a) — is a true exception, as it is specifically stated that the calendar is applied even in cases of error.

This all brings to mind the right lane highway exit signs that state “Exit Only.”  I always wonder if that means that the right-most lane is the only lane that exits or if the only option from the right-most lane is to exit.  Perhaps that’s how they spoke at the turn of the last millennium, but it certainly confuses a lot of people and not enough religious instruction is provided to deter one from such an understanding.

Find out more about parshas shoftim on 4torah.com