Did you ever notice that some authority figures really don’t like it when lay people question them? I remember the following incident quite clearly:
I was in college in nineteen-eighty-something, before the era of smartphones, GPS or even MapQuest. When we wanted directions in those days, we had to ask someone. At the time, I was looking for a store on MacDougal Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. I walked one way from the subway station and didn’t find it, so I walked the other way and still didn’t find it. I saw a police officer on the beat so I figured I’d ask him.
“Excuse me, do you know where MacDougal Street is?”
“It’s that way.” (He pointed in the direction I had first tried.)
“Are you sure? I just came from – “
“I already told you, sir.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that – “
At this point, he turned his back and refused even to acknowledge me. To me, this would seem like an overreaction in any event but his righteous indignation seems especially misplaced when one considers that he was wrong.
Regular readers may recall a series of articles I wrote a few months ago following back surgery. The first doctor I saw, before the spine specialist, read my X-rays and diagnosed me with scoliosis. I questioned this because, while one can get scoliosis as an adult, it doesn’t happen overnight. I had recently completed physical therapy for a limp and I was pretty confident that, had I been tilted to one side the whole time, the various doctors and physical therapists I had been seeing would have noticed. The doctor dismissed my hypothesis with a hand wave and “X-rays don’t lie.”
I was back a few weeks later, having my MRIs read, and the doctor said, “Huh. I guess you don’t have scoliosis.” (I give the doctor full props for walking it back, unlike the police officer years earlier.)
The reality is that I don’t know the neighborhood as well as the cop on the beat but I know where I’ve been. I certainly don’t know medicine anywhere near the level of a physician but I know my own medical history. Lay people by definition are not experts but that doesn’t mean that we have nothing to contribute.
Throughout Tanach, unwillingness to listen to others or to admit that one doesn’t know something is a sign of arrogance. Some examples:
- Chanun, the king of Ammon, refused to believe that a contingent sent by King David on an errand of mercy were not secretly spies; he treated them as enemies, precipitating a war (II Samuel 10);
- Yiftach mistakenly volunteered his daughter as an offering in Judges 11. The Yalkut Shimoni criticizes Yiftach for his refusal to have the vow annulled. As leader of the people, he evidently found going groveling to the kohein gadol too demeaning, preferring to sacrifice his daughter’s life than to concede his error;
- When Yoseif wanted to pose as a harsh tyrant in front of his brothers, the first thing he did was accuse them of being spies. This they denied – because, of course, they weren’t spies – but Yoseif pretended not to believe them because that’s the way a real despot would act.
King Saul, great though he was, was flawed. He repeatedly refused to admit when he was wrong about something. He refused to concede that David wasn’t his enemy despite all evidence to the contrary and he defended the rightness of his actions in keeping Agag and the plunder of Amalek alive. This attitude led to his downfall and the demise of his dynasty. Contrast this with King David, who admitted he was wrong in the incident of Batsheva, who admitted he was mistaken in taking Zivah’s side against Mephiboshes, and who admitted publicly in Psalms that he was hasty in judging all men as deceitful (Psalms 116:11 – we say it in Hallel: ani amarti b’chafzi kol ho’adam kozeiv). This attitude cemented not only his dynasty but his reputation for righteousness, because “righteous” doesn’t mean “always right.”
There’s no shame in admitting that one doesn’t know everything. If anyone had the right to be righteously indignant if questioned, it would have been Moshe, who got his information directly from God. Nevertheless, Moshe was quite good about being open to others’ input. He accepted his father-in-law Yisro’s constructive criticism about delegating authority. When the daughters of Tzelofchad questioned the inheritance laws, Moshe didn’t tell them to like it or lump it and send them away; he acknowledged the rightness of their concern and took the question to God. When Moshe and Aharon disagreed regarding a ritual matter in Leviticus chapter 10, Moshe conceded that he was mistaken and his brother was right. This is because Moshe was humble. His willingness to validate others’ input in no way detracts from his greatness. If anything, it enhances his stature in our eyes!
I don’t claim that all people’s opinions are, or should be, equally valid in all areas. Doctors know more about medicine than lay people do. Lawyers know more about the law. Financial advisors know more about investing and rabbis know more about halacha. But that doesn’t mean that we should be dismissive of others because everyone potentially has something to contribute. And it’s a two-way street: the rabbi wants his doctor to listen to him and the doctor wants his rabbi to listen to him.
This is an idea that our Sages have expressed in a number of places. In Taanis 7a, Rabbi Chanina said, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.” Or as Ben Zoma says in Pirkei Avos, “Who is considered wise? One who learns from every person.” The Bartinuro explains that a person who is not concerned about his honor and is willing to learn from those not as expert as he demonstrates that his quest for wisdom is sincere and not for the sake of his own ego.
Experts are by definition expert. If you’re not an accountant, listen to your accountant. If you’re not a surgeon, listen to your surgeon. If you’re not a poseik, listen to your poseik. But wise people in every field understand that every person potentially has something to bring to the table. If it didn’t hurt Moshe’s reputation to listen to “the little people,” it certainly won’t hurt ours.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.