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September 29, 2016 / 26 Elul, 5776
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Can Gedolim Make Mistakes?

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How can it be that outstanding Torah scholars in Europe, before the Holocaust, and even after it started, were against the Zionist movement and told their congregations not to uproot themselves from where they were and flee to Eretz Yisrael? Even today, there are Torah leaders who tell their followers that the time has not come to go to Israel, even though Hashem has already gathered millions of His children to the Holy Land, miraculously transformed the reborn Jewish Nation in Israel into one of the most advanced and powerful countries on the globe, and made Israel the Torah center of the world. The question arises – can Gedolim err?

The Torah testifies about Korach and his followers that they were outstanding Torah scholars, stating: “They were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown” (Bamidbar, 16:2), yet they made a terrible mistake in their machloket against Moshe and Aharon. The lovers of exile, Datan and Abiram, even went so far as to call Egypt, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” the very special expression the Torah bestows upon Eretz Yisrael. For their own personal reasons, they turned the words of the Torah upside down. This is like modern-day Diasporians who maintain that America is the Promised Land!

Last week, we once again learned about the tragic mistake of the Spies who were the leaders of the tribes, the heads of the Sanhedrin, the outstanding Torah scholars of their time. With all their Torah stature, their posak halacha in preferring the golus over Eretz Yisrael was a terrible mistake which led to the death of the entire generation in the wilderness and paved the way for the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

The universally accepted book, “Mesillat Yesharim,” explains that the Spies were concerned for their personal honor, knowing that a new type of brave and multi-faceted leader would be needed when the Jews entered the Promised Land (Ch.19 on Saintliness. See also Zohar, Parshat Shelach.) One of the greatest Torah giants ever, the Vilna Gaon, teaches that the sin of the Spies returns to haunt the nation in every generation, stating, “Many of the sinners in this great sin of ‘They despised the cherished Land,’ and also many guardians of Torah, will not recognize of understand that they have been sucked into the sin of the Spies in many false ideas and empty claims, and they cover their ideas with the already proven fallacy that the mitzvah of the settlement of Israel no longer applies in our day, an opinion which has already been disproven by the Torah giants of the world, the Early and Later Torah Authorities” (Kol HaTor, Ch.5).

The fourth chapter of the Book of Vayikra deals with special kinds of sin offerings. Along with the offerings of a Kohen Gadol who sins, and a king who sins, are the laws governing a sin offering for the whole congregation (Vayikra, 4:13). The tractate Horiot explains this as being a case where the majority of the Great Sanhedrin makes a mistake, and because of their error in deciding the law, a majority of the congregation transgresses. Here, the Torah itself recognizes the possibility of the majority of Gedolim making a mistake.

Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, z’tzal, Rosh Yeshiva at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, was often asked how could Gedolei Yisrael could make a mistake in such a serious matter as the return of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel? He discussed the question with his students in his usual straightforward manner, in spite of the reverence he held, and taught his students to feel, for our Sages, and for all Torah scholars. However, he wanted the generation that was rebuilding the Land of Israel to understand that even great Talmidei Chachamim can make mistakes:

“When one believes that the Redemption of Israel, and the coming of Mashiach, have to appear miraculously from out of the heavens, in a way which transcends the normal order of life, then one fails to see the hand of Hashem in all the events in the world. The Redemption is not obligated to appear with obvious miracles, nor does it have to be absolutely natural. Both miracles and natural historical development belong to the Almighty’s domain. The Rambam explains that the appearance of Mashiach is also a natural historical process, which is revealed by the ingathering of the Jewish People to Israel, and even through wars (Rambam, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 12:1-4). The Redemption of the Jewish People which comes to pass gradually in a natural way, as we have experienced in our time, is also from the Almighty” (See the book “Torat Eretz Yisrael,” Ch. 8).

Rav Kook continues:

“Certainly, the Redemption hasn’t yet reached completion. Many Torah leaders backed away from the Zionist cause, and even fought against it, because they wanted the Redemption (Geula) to be instantly complete. They attached themselves to the idea that the Geula had to be completely kosher from its inception, as opposed to being a gradual process, unfolding through many individuals, organizations, wars, political agreements, and the hard manual labor of making the desert bloom, in order to bring the Redemption toward its final fulfillment. They couldn’t accept a Redemption which spread out in many directions, including secular movements replete with apikorsim and free thinkers who had thrown off the yoke of the Torah. Nor could they come to terms with the Geula’s unfolding in natural, down-to-earth events.

“When the Rebbe of Belz came on aliyah, he said, ‘We realize now that we erred in our estrangement from Eretz Yisrael.’ Other Gedolim also repented over their shortsightedness. If this repentance had occurred 30 years before, preceding the Holocaust, prompting the mass aliyah of devout God-fearing Jews, the spiritual situation is Israel would be very different today.

“The beginning of the Zionist awakening was filled with uncertainty, but today there aren’t any doubts. We see eye to eye the acts of Hashem revealed in the ingathering of the exiles and the incredible rebuilding of the Nation in the Land. It has become increasingly clear that those who supported the return to Zion were right and that the halacha is according to those who are sharper in the depth and illumination of the truthfulness of this great matter.”

Tzvi Fishman

About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" The DVD of the movie is available online.

The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.

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Tzvi Fishman, author of the Jewish Press blog Felafel on Rye and author of more than a dozen books.
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