Just the Facts

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15 Oct 2018

Social media is an interesting place.

Ok, done; that’s all I wanted to say.

Just kidding.

I’m often intrigued to see how discussions go on Facebook, where it’s so easy to share perspectives on anything with a click of a button. Many people consistently offer consistent opinions on whatever topics matter to them, whether it’s approaches to parenting, religion, current events, how to live a healthy lifestyle, etc. So many of us have opinions and stick to them, which is often a virtue – but of course, those opinions we’ve already formed run the risk of blinding us to new evidence or to the details of specific cases. This concern itself seems to be discussed a lot, with some of the same people who have those strong views also sharing articles about increased polarization of modern discourse and even the possibility that social media feeds that polarization.

(This is not an essay about social media – though I might write one of those one day.)

The question of how our general perspectives might affect our reactions to specific instances reminds me, naturally, of one of my favorite passages in Rav Hirsch’s commentary, conveniently located at the beginning of parshat Lech Lecha.

We’ll have to start with Ramban, though, who somewhat famously (except among those who skip this one because they disapprove of criticizing our holy ancestors) makes a bold statement about Avraham’s trip to Egypt in Bereishit 12:10. (Note: His name at the time was Avram, and his wife’s was Sarai, but I will refer to them as Avraham and Sarah anyway.)

Know that Avraham Avinu sinned a great sin, unintentionally (בשגגה), in bringing his righteous wife into a stumbling-block of sin because of his fear that they would kill him. He should have trusted in Hashem… Also his departure, because of famine, from the land about which he had been commanded in the first place, was a sin that he committed [cf Hoshea 12:9], because G-d would redeem him from death by famine. And because of this incident, exile in Egypt, at Pharoh’s hand, was decreed upon his descendants…

Wow, Ramban! Avraham Avinu committed a double sin, and it was so bad that thousands of his descendants had to suffer for hundreds of years as punishment?

(This is also not an essay about reward and punishment. Nor is it an essay about whether biblical heroes were perfect or fallible, though it may look like one.)

Many later scholars take issue with Ramban’s statement, either because of the specifics of the case – for instance, Avraham had only recently “met” G-d, and had no reason to assume He would protect him – or because of a general aversion to the very notion that our Patriarchs could have sinned, especially a “great sin.” (Ramban does include the word “unintentionally,” but some are perhaps not sure what he means by the caveat, or don’t think it’s enough.)

Likely, some argue with Ramban for both reasons: If one has a general aversion to the very notion that our Patriarchs could have sinned, one might be more inclined to interpret the specifics of the case in Avraham’s favor. It is, indeed, really difficult to remove ourselves from our general perspectives and examine any particular case with a truly open mind.

Myself, I’m partial to Rav Hirsch’s approach, but not for the obvious reasons.

For two long paragraphs, Rav Hirsch offers a diatribe against those who can’t accept the possibility that a biblical hero sinned:

…The Torah never hides from us the faults, errors and weaknesses of our great men. Just by that it gives the stamp of veracity to what it relates…. Were they without passion, without internal struggle, their virtues would seem to us the outcome of some higher nature… no model that we could hope to emulate…. Did we not know that [Moshe] could also fly into a passion, his meekness and modesty would seem to us to be his inborn natural disposition, and lost to us as an example… gives his [humility] its true greatness, shows it to us as the result of a great work of self-control and self-ennoblement which we all should copy because we all could copy… never be our task to whitewash the spiritual and moral heroes of our past… They do not require our apologies, nor do such attempts become them…

All this resonates very deeply with me. As a student, I always cringed when a teacher would explain biblical stories in terms of our heroes not being “on our level,” as if they were superhuman, even angelic. I could understand respect, I could understand putting them on pedestals and learning from their virtues – but I couldn’t understand not learning from their mistakes too, if the Torah chooses to share those mistakes. (And here I recommend checking out Radak’s comments on 16:6.) I couldn’t relate to extreme, blind hero-worship.

Finding these two paragraphs in Rav Hirsch’s commentary was like a breath of fresh air – but that’s not the real reason I’m so enamored with his approach to the story of Avraham and Sarah in Egypt. Because this is not an essay about the fallibility of our biblical heroes; instead, it’s an essay about how we think about that or any issue, in general or in specific instances.

It’s really Rav Hirsch’s next sentence that I think is so crucial, as a model that I, along with anyone generally inclined towards one perspective or the other, must remember: “But before we come to this decision, let us consider more closely the facts which are told us of this event.”

Just like those who are averse to the very notion that our Patriarchs sinned might be predisposed to interpret Bereishit 12 in Avraham’s favor – so too, those who are averse to whitewashing the Patriarchs might be predisposed to interpret the account as portraying his guilt. I might recoil at attempts to whitewash the sins of biblical heroes, while others might be horrified by the idea that biblical heroes ever sinned like mere humans – and either perspective could easily color our readings of any particular story. Most of us have some bias, in some direction, that makes intellectual honesty a real challenge.

To achieve that honesty, we have to consider the facts and what makes the most sense – and also, I think, why we think one viewpoint makes more sense than another. Do I assume Avraham had a perfectly pious, ingenious plan because I’m predisposed to a view of patriarchal perfection, or because that’s the reading that makes the most sense? Do I jump to accept Ramban’s critique because I find it logically and textually compelling, or because it thrills me to find a traditional commentator condemning a biblical hero?

Rav Hirsch emphatically supports the notion that Avraham could have sinned – yet also reminds us that the fact that he could have, doesn’t mean everything he did was a sin. If Rav Hirsch believes those inclined to believe in patriarchal perfection are making a mistake – it is no less a mistake for those inclined to believe in patriarchal fallibility to assume that he did do wrong in any one incident.

Ramban himself, I’m fairly certain, was not motivated by a lack of respect for Avraham’s virtues – and neither should we be, in deciding we “like” his view. Ramban and Rav Hirsch may have helped legitimize views of patriarchal fallibility, but the way Rav Hirsch flips his discussion in that key line reminds us the first two paragraphs presented only a general truth, not a license to condemn whomever we want, whenever we want.

In a related instance, Rav Hirsch prefaces his comments on the sale of Yosef by saying we must “look, if not for a justification, still for an explanation for the event which now follows” (comment on 37:11-12). Rav Hirsch doesn’t feel the need to justify the brothers; perhaps what they did was indeed entirely wrong. But he does want to explain it. “After all, we have not to do with a band of robbers and murderers who would lightly commit murder for the sake of a coat.” Maybe they were not so angelic as to be incapable of sin – but it simply doesn’t make sense, as Seforno points out on 37:18, that those whose names would later be inscribed on the priestly garments in the Holy Temple would have done something quite so awful without at least thinking they had a reason.

Seforno and Rav Hirsch, remind us we must consider all the evidence – the fact that G-d chose all 12 of Yaakov’s sons and indicates love for them, alongside the fact that most of them plotted first to kill and then to sell their brother, together with the fact that the Torah labels their emotions as “jealousy” and “hatred” – and make the best sense we can of it all.

It’s not about whether we are more comfortable viewing Avraham as perfect or fallible. It’s about the reasons we feel more or less comfortable with one view or the other, the basis for those reasons in general, and how all that interacts with the facts of the particular case. It’s about making sense of each story with all the tools the Torah gives us.

Getting back to Facebook – I am actually sometimes pleasantly surprised to see my more activist-minded friends share thoughts that don’t seem to line up with opinions they have previously expressed. Even as many people are (rightly) concerned about excessive polarization in many areas of modern discourse, is still possible to consider each situation on its own merits, maybe coming to a conclusion in line with our general perspectives and maybe not.

Like Rav Hirsch, we can acknowledge our general inclinations – even expound on them for paragraphs at a time – yet still question which view makes the most sense in a given instance and “consider more closely the facts” of that case.

In that way, we can hold fast to the veracity Rav Hirsch stresses we find in the Torah, and settle for nothing less than veracity in today’s world.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.