Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
"And Hashem said to Avram, 'Go for yourself from your land... to the
land that I will show you.'" Hashem later reveals to Avram that "the
land" He intended was Eretz Canaan, which would become Eretz
Yisrael/The Land of Israel. Just after Avram arrived in Canaan,
however, a famine took place, and Avram was compelled to leave
Canaan and go to Egypt to sustain himself.
Ramban suggests that Avram actually sinned by leaving Canaan. He
writes (12:10), "And let it be known, that Avraham Avinu (our
forefather) sinned gravely ("cheit gadol"), unintentionally, [by going to
Egypt], because, out of his own fear, he placed his wife (Sarah), a
righteous woman, in great danger of sin. Rather, he should have
placed his trust in Hashem, that He would safeguard him. Also, his
very act of leaving The Land - where he had been told to go [by
Hashem] - was a sin. G-d, in the midst of a hunger, would have
redeemed him from death..."
Most commentaries disagree with the Ramban. How is it possible,
contends Abarbanel, that Avram erred in going to Egypt? The
Midrash (Avos de-Rabbi Nasan 33) counts the hunger in Canaan and
Avram's subsequent departure to Egypt as one of the "ten trials [of
faith] with which Hashem tested Avraham". It is illogical to say that
one who survived the test (as our Sages testify concerning Avraham)
could be labelled as a sinner!
Rabbi Shamshon Rafael Hirsch also disagrees with the Ramban.
Before we consider Avraham blameworthy, he says, let us consider
some facts more closely. The danger must have been of such a
threatening nature, so removed from circumvention, that Avram felt
he could not possibly avoid it. Now, when Ramban views this story
with the hindsight of history, and says that Avram should have stayed
in Canaan, he fails to take into account that Avram had no
precedents upon which to draw.
Although R' Hirsch himself disagrees, it is fascinating to see his
comments regarding the Ramban. In a dissertation fundamental to
Torah perspective (quoted in Artscroll Tanach Series, Bereishis vol.
1, p. 444), he comments:
Even were Avraham's act truly blameworthy, it need not
trouble us, because it is part of the Torah's greatness that
it never attempts to gloss over the flaws of even our
greatest men as being infallible. The Torah does not
conceal the faults and weaknesses of our great Sages
(including Moshe!), and thus the Torah relates what
occurred, not because it was exemplary, but because it
did occur. This attests to the unadorned truthfulness of
what it relates.
From the comment of the Ramban, we learn that Truth
is the seal of our Torah, and we must not whitewash or
appear as apologists for our spiritual heroes of the past.
Indeed, the entire Torah, both Written (Tanach) and Oral (Talmud
and Midrash), is replete with errors of the greatest Sages in our
history. Incidentally, this fact lends credence to those places where
Oral tradition suggests that certain biblical stories which portray great
people in an unflattering light have deeper meaning, and can not be
understood by a cursory reading of the scriptures.
A certain tzaddik once commented, "People think that a tzaddik (a
righteous man - often referring to a great Jewish leader) can't sin. Or,
conversely, if he has sinned, he is not a tzaddik. But neither are true.
The tzaddik is remains a tzaddik, and the sin remains a sin."
Why does the Torah do this? What would have been missing had the
Torah conveniently omitted the faults and errors of our venerable
leaders? Evidently, there is much to be learned.
I once read in one of Rabbi Avraham J. Twerski's books the following
thought. The Gemara (Gittin 43a) says, "A person can not fully grasp
the Torah unless he has erred in it." Making mistakes is part of the
learning process. As the saying goes; we learn from our mistakes. In
truth, there is much more to be learned from a mistake, and how it
was corrected, than there is to be learned from something that has
gone right from the outset. And imagine the insights one can find by
studying the errors of the greatest sages in our history and learning
from their failures! Had the Torah withheld this from us, we would
have been lead to believe that to attain true greatness, absolute
perfection is a necessity; there is no room for mistake. By teaching
us that even the truly great err, we are encouraged to continue our
own struggle for personal growth, even though we too ( - too often)
err. And we gain insight by observing how they erred and what they
did about it.
It is written (Mishlei/Proverbs 22:6), "Educate the youth, each in his
way; even when he ages, it will not leave him." From this we learn
that education should be an enduring process. Our lessons should be
taught in such a manner that our children and our students (and we
ourselves) remember them. What, then, defines an enduring lesson?
There is no point in trying to make our children/students believe we,
their educators, are perfect or infallible. We err, and our children too
will err. On the contrary, by sharing with them some of our mistakes
(obviously those mistakes that are appropriate to discuss with them),
and explaining to them how we went about correcting them, we
endow them with a long-lasting, true-to-life lesson.
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.