The Torah teaches us, “Lo sasur min hadavar asher yagidu l’cha yamin u’smol – Do not turn away from what they (the Torah sages) tell you, to the right or to the left.” This is the primary directive in the Torah that teaches us to have unswerving obedience to the words of the Torah greats of our generation.
Rashi elaborates on the phraseology, ‘…to the right or to the left,’ saying that even if a Torah sage instructs you that your right is left or that your left is right, you should obey and believe him. On the surface, this comment is very difficult to understand. How is one expected to listen blindly to someone who tells him that his right is left or vice versa? How can the Torah expect an intelligent human being to accomplish this?
The great Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Zt”l, Zy”a, gives a profound elucidation of this Rashi. He explains that Rashi does not say that we should listen if the Torah sage says that day is night or night is day – or that black is white and white is black, etc. Rather, following the lead of the verse, Rashi deliberately chooses the example of right and left for, if I am standing opposite you then my right hand is on your left side. So in reality, whether it is right or left is really a question of the angle from which you are looking at the hand.
This is exactly what the posuk is trying to convey. There are times when we might be very certain about something – only because we are looking at it from our perspective. But the Torah sage can look at it from a totally different angle, thereby seeing the opposite conclusion from what we had thought.
An example of this powerful concept is what the Gemora teaches us, “Binyan yeladim stirah, vistiras zekeinim binyan – The building of the young is sometimes really demolishing, while demolishment done by elders is in reality constructive building.” In a dramatic way, the Gemora teaches us that there are times when youth, who have not yet seen enough of life and are not thoroughly saturated with Torah, think that what they are doing is constructive and commendable, when in reality it is destructive and sometimes disastrous. On the flip side, when the sages sometimes put a halt to advancement – and to the eagerness of youth, it looks like they are taking a step backward. In reality they are building and safeguarding the future.
It is all a question of perspective, and the Torah is teaching us that the Torah sage has the clarity of vision, broadened by his Torah knowledge and by the fact that the sage is trained to look ahead. As we are taught, “Eizehu chacham? Haro’eh es hanolad – Who is wise? He who is able to see ahead.” This synthesis of Torah wisdom and acute foresight enables the Torah sage to see things differently, and it is this wisdom that the Torah is instructing us to follow at all times.
In its preface, the sefer Chayei Olam writes that the generations began to deteriorate terribly when emunas chachamim started to diminish. And the saintly Chasam Sofer, in his responsa [6:56], writes that it is very important to praise and aggrandize Torah sages to our family.
Let me share with you one story that illustrates vividly how important it is to adhere strictly to the words of our sages. The great Rav Moshe Feinstein, Zt”l, Zy”a, was a rabbi in the Russian town of Luban. Also living in the town was a very wicked Jew who was a moser, an informer. During this man’s lifetime, he wreaked all kinds of havoc for the Jewish community.
As this informer was lying on his deathbed, he summoned the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, and made a very unusual request. He said that as he was about to leave the world and face his final reckoning, he felt terrible remorse for the horrible things he had perpetrated against his Jewish brothers. He therefore asked the Chevra Kadisha to bury him like a donkey, with his coffin standing upright in the ground instead of lying down. In this way he hoped that this disgrace and indignity would be an atonement for his dreadful sins. He then made the Chevra Kadisha members sign a document stating that they would bury him in this unusual fashion.
The Chevra Kadisha actually thought it was a very good idea that such a sinner should be publicly shamed and disgraced. It could be a lesson for others not to follow in his wicked ways. However, nothing was done in the town without the approval of the Mora D’Asra, Rav Feinstein, so they went to the Rav to get his permission.
Rav Moshe adamantly refused to agree. He said that we are taught in Shulchan Aruch that we don’t bury a human like a donkey and therefore we may not do so, even to a rasha. Although the members of the Chevra Kadisha were disappointed, they buried him in the normal fashion.
Two days later, the dreaded NKVD – the anti-Semitic secret police – came to the Chevra Kadisha and demanded the informant’s grave be opened. Having no choice, they exhumed the body. The Russian official looked, shrugged with surprise, and told them to rebury the body. He went on his way.
It was only then that the Jews realized the horrendous plot of the dying man. He wanted to get the Jewish community in trouble – even with his dead body, and had informed the Russian authorities that the Jews, to get even with him, would bury him like a donkey. It was only because the Jewish community sought the wisdom of its Rav and followed his words that it was saved from a terrible calamity.
May we merit to follow the words of our sages – and in that zechus may we be blessed with good health, happiness and everything wonderful.
Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of, and edits, Rabbi Weiss’s articles.
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