“It’s just a flu.”
“Jews who study Torah won’t get it.”
“If you give tzedaka to a certain organization, you’ll be protected.”
“It won’t come to Bnei Brak.”
“It will go away when the weather warms up.”
What do all these statements and predictions about Covid-19 have in common? They all turned out to be incorrect.
What else do they have in common? Virtually no one who made any of them admitted they were wrong. In most cases, they quietly moved on without retracting or apologizing for the damage they caused.
It’s very rare for people to admit they’re wrong, even if it’s clear to all those around them. The more they believe something (or the more they want to believe it), the more doggedly they chain themselves to it, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
The Gemara (Shevuos 30b) says, “The Rabbis taught: From where do we know that a judge should not [act as] a defense attorney for his words? The Torah says, ‘Distance yourself from a false matter.’”
Rashi comments: “If he makes a judgment and his heart is [telling him] that he made a mistake, he should not hold fast to his words, bringing proofs to make them stand because he is embarrassed to retract them. Rather, he should retract in all respects in order to issue justice according to the truth.”
There is a critical lesson in human psychology here. A person’s instinctive reaction upon realizing he’s wrong about something is to become a defense attorney for it. The job of a lawyer is to argue doggedly for a position even if he knows deep down that it’s false.
But becoming a lawyer for a position we learn is false is forbidden by the Torah. Midvar sheker tirchak. We must distance ourselves from falsehood.
Rashi observes that the motivation to act like a defense attorney is shame. People consider it shameful to admit they were wrong. What they fail to realize is that most people admire someone who admits he made a mistake. He earns a reputation as a man of integrity. And then, in the future, if he doggedly believes in something, people will trust him more because they know he doesn’t just insist he’s right as a matter of habit.
Such a person will influence others, whereas someone who desperately grasps at weak arguments to defend his position will be tuned out. Who has respect for talking heads who relentlessly argue a position no matter what?
There is no shame in reshaping our beliefs when new information comes to light. The shame is ignoring new information or crafting arguments to play the role of defense attorney for a faulty belief.
And faulty beliefs abound. Some continue to insist that G-d doesn’t want us to return to Israel despite nearly a century of evidence and mountains of Torah sources to the contrary. Some insist that “it can’t happen” to the Jews of America despite the rapid deterioration of the country and centuries of evidence to the contrary. Some cling to sources of information and decision-making – be it governments, the media, certain rabbis, etc. – no matter how badly they are misled.
The Torah commands us to seek truth and discard old beliefs when they are proven wrong. Our Sages did this without fear or shame when new information came to light. That’s is why we trust them. And it their example that we must emulate – for our own sake and for the sake of those we may influence.