The Talmud in Tractate Taanit narrates a story of the great Rabbi Eliezer who, after completing his studies one day and feeling very proud, once met an exceedingly ugly person. He remarked, “What an ugly person you are! Are all your townspeople as ugly as you?” The man was shocked and insulted but responded, “I don’t know, but go seek out my Master who created me!”
Rabbi Eliezer, realizing the great wrong that he had committed, attempted to beg for forgiveness for his disparaging remark, only to be rebuffed by this person who was deeply hurt. When they finally reached a town, the townspeople gathered around the great Rabbi Eliezer to greet him. When the man asked, who is this man? He was told that he is the great Rabbi Eliezer, to which he blurted, “There should be no more like him in this world!” The townspeople implored him to forgive Rabbi Eliezer for after all he was still recognized as a great leader. Finally, after much coaxing, the man agreed and absolved Rabbi Eliezer for the terrible remarks that he had uttered.
This section of the Talmud was cited to me by a young man as we sat in a beit hamedrash, a study hall, as he pondered how such an eminent rabbi as Rabbi Eliezer could commit such a callous and insensitive act. “If Rabbi Eliezer was such a great man he couldn’t have made such a remark! Our chachamim, scholars, could not make such an error!”
Looking at me for some direction he asked: “Can you explain this section of the Talmud to me?
“What is so difficult to understand? I responded.
“Rabbi Eliezer just made a mistake! People make misjudgments and even a great rabbi could also inadvertently, without thinking, make a mistake! Is this so difficult for you to accept?”
The discussion ensued with me citing proof after proof of errors in judgment by our leaders, yet he refused to acknowledge that this was possible.
“What about Moshe hitting the rock?
Or Yiftach offering his daughter as a sacrifice?
Or Eli the priest mistaking Channah for a drunkard?
Or King David’s relationship with Bat Sheva?
Or Acher becoming an apostate? And the list went on and on…
“You don’t understand,” he continued. “These people were malachim, angels. There must be a hidden message in their actions. They could not commit such blatant acts of cruelty and misjudgment!
How do we teach our children about the greatness of our leaders? Do we paint a picture of people who were godly and never did anything even questionably wrong in their lives? Or do we tell it like it is, that our holy leaders were human beings like everyone else, and sometimes even they made blunders in their lives?
I believe that people who attain great heights in leadership or scholarship often have children who do not assume any leadership roles and rebel against that which their parents believed in and fought so hard for. If we place our leaders on the highest pedestal, often we are discouraged to try to emulate them. To do so seems impossible and it becomes easier to withdraw and give up rather than try.
If we say that our leaders are infallible then we paint an impossible challenge for our youth to aspire to their greatness and when they sense that they too make mistakes they become “turned off” to Judaism and reject our heritage as folly.
When I study the Torah and learn about our great heroes, I find it refreshing that they could make mistakes! It tells me that sometimes I can also err but I can continue to strive on to become a better person.
Years ago there was a book published entitled The Making of a Gadol, in which one of the rabbis were depicted in his youth in an unfavorable way. After great pressure, the book had to be withdrawn and corrected or face serious sanctions, because a gadol can1 never be depicted in a less than perfect way.
A second book which was recently published entitled Changing the Immutable actually sites proof on how our leaders – our rabbis – when reporting on the lives of our gedolim, actually changed the text or even doctored the pictures of these people, so not to present a picture which would depict the humanness of these great leaders. Leaders such as the former Lubavitcher Rebbi without a kippah, or the deletion of Rav Kook’s haskama, approval, appearing in a book, because it was felt that his views were not acceptable.
Isn’t it better to tell the truth and impart the message to our youth that everyone has difficulties and challenges in their lives, but despite them one can reach levels of greatness?
To do otherwise would be placing impossible and unrealistic goals on children and students setting them up for imminent failure.