Rabbi Angel offers a piece on this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, which asks the age-old question of whether or not we should acknowledge the literal story presented in front of us, specifically when it comes to whether or not the characters sinned. He uses this as a polemic against literature that tries to gloss over the failures of the great rabbis. In many traditions, it is inappropriate to assign sin to someone of grand stature, so instead the stock answer is that don’t really understand why they did what they did. Now, I do believe the suspension of vulnerability and humanness among these people has led to lesser folks seriously sinning (i.e. the countless charges of sexual inappropriateness among clergy), yet the biblical element is more complicated than that. It is difficult for some people to see a role model as being imperfect. So instead, we gloss over or reinterpret the imperfections in a way as to exonerate the individual.
Personally, I want to see the vulnerability and the flaws. It reminds us that we too are human and that we are all susceptible to error. Yet, we can make mistakes and still rise to the highest of levels. Instead, if we read about superhuman humans, we can easily feel less inspired because without the innate abilities that each has, we are merely treading water throughout life.
Some years ago, I had a conversation with a Hassidic Jew who assured me that his Rebbe never committed any sins. He stated with certainty that his Rebbe was endowed with a grand and holy soul, far superior to the soul of any other people.
When I pointed out to him that even Moses committed sins, he flatly denied that this was so. I reminded him that the Torah itself reports Moses’s shortcomings. He said: You do not understand the Torah! It is impossible that Moses could have done anything wrong. He was perfect in every way.
The conversation came to an end, with both of us unhappy with the result. He felt I did not demonstrate enough faith in the perfection of saintly personalities, and I felt he was guilty of distorting the Torah’s words and distorting the reality of the human condition.
This conversation came to mind recently when I received an email from a colleague, in which he included some important passages by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The comments related specifically to stories reported in Parashat Lekh Lekha—but Rabbi Hirsch’s point is of general relevance to our study of Torah…and to our evaluation of saintly individuals.
The Torah relates various problematic narratives about Abraham. For example, when going to Egypt, Abraham feared that the Egyptians would murder him and take his wife Sarah. Abraham told Sarah to say she was his sister, rather than his wife. In spite of (or because of!) this deception, Sarah was taken to Pharaoh. Abraham was given rewards and he thrived in Egypt. When God punished Pharaoh and when Pharaoh realized that Sarah was really Abraham’s wife, Pharaoh expressed outrage to Abraham over the deception. Pharaoh expelled Abraham and Sarah, who left Pharaoh’s domain with much wealth.
This story surely does not cast Abraham in a good light. He asked his wife to participate in a deception. He let his wife be taken by the Egyptians. He reaped financial rewards while his wife was in captivity in Pharaoh’s house.
Rabbi Hirsch makes a profoundly important point: “The Torah does not attempt to hide from us the faults, errors and weaknesses of our great men, and precisely thereby it places the stamp of credibility upon the happenings it relates. The fact that we are told about their faults and weaknesses does not detract from our great men. Indeed, it adds to their stature and makes their life stories even more instructive. Had they all been portrayed to us as models of perfection we would have believed that they had been endowed with a higher nature not give to us to attain. Had they been presented to us free of human passions and inner conflicts, their nature would seem to us merely the result of a loftier predisposition, not a product of their personal merit, and certainly no model we could ever hope to emulate.”
Rabbi Hirsch goes on to say that “we must never attempt to whitewash the spiritual and moral heroes of our past. They are not in need of our apologetics, nor would they tolerate such attempts on our part. Truth is the seal of our Word of God, and truthfulness is the distinctive characteristic also of all its genuinely great teachers and commentators.”
Our great biblical heroes, as well as our great spiritual heroes of all generations, were real human beings, not plaster saints. They had real feelings, real conflicts. Many times they performed admirably; on some occasions they fell short. To suggest that anyone is “perfect”—totally devoid of sin and error—is to misrepresent that person and to misrepresent truth.
There is a popular genre of “religious literature” that presents biographies of biblical and later religious luminaries as paragons of virtue, totally devoid of sin and inner conflict. In fact, such books are not authentic biographies, because they describe their heroes in an untruthful way. These personalities are drawn in such superlative terms, that readers will find it exceedingly difficult to identify with them or to emulate them.
There is an opposite tendency in some circles to point to every flaw and sin of our spiritual heroes, and to undermine their credibility as religious models. Our prophets and teachers are presented as though devoid of higher spiritual and moral qualities.
Just as it is false to overstate the perfection of our heroes, so it is false to undervalue their spiritual achievements. Rather, we must study their lives honestly, recognizing that these are remarkable individuals who reached great heights—and who had to struggle mightily to attain their levels of religious insight and righteousness. Their failings can be as instructive to us as their successes.
Just as Truth is the seal of the Word of God, so is the pursuit of Truth the proper objective of all students of Torah and Jewish tradition.