The Time magazine headline made me chuckle: “Runner Wins Marathon After Competitors Totally Ran the Wrong Way.” I had visions of silly marathoners paying the just price for their own foolishness but upon reading the article it turned out that such was not the case.
Italian runner Eyob Faniel, took first place in the Venice Marathon because the actual front-runners – Abdulahl Dawud, Gilbert Kipleting Chumba, Kipkemei Mutai and David Kiprono Metto – were led astray by a motorcycle guide. The “several hundred meters” they ran in the wrong direction before doubling back to the proper course gave Faniel enough of an advantage that he acquired an insurmountable lead. The error occurred at mile 16 of a 26.2-mile run. Of those led astray, Chumba came in fourth and Metto, fifth.
You will note that the misled runners were not credited with extra time to compensate for the error. The race was not paused until they could resume their rightful places. The event was not canceled in order to hold a “do-over.” While the error was no fault of Dawud, Chumba, Mutai and Metto, they get to live with the consequences of having been led astray.
Such is life. Sometimes people are misled and – you know what? – they have to live with the consequences. Chava was misled by the snake and was cursed for it. Adam was misled by Chava and was cursed for it. Korach misled a large group of followers, who were destroyed because of it. King Ahab was even misled by a false spirit, leading to his demise. (To better understand how a spirit could be permitted to mislead Ahab, see The God Papers.) As much as we like to think otherwise, being fed bad advice or misinformation is not a “get out of trouble free” card.
Yes, there is a Torah commandment not to mislead others. Leviticus 19:14 tells us, “Do not place a stumbling block before a blind person.” While we certainly may not do this in a literal sense, Rashi explains that the meaning of this verse is metaphorical. Specifically, it’s a prohibition against giving bad advice to someone who is “blind” in a certain manner. For example, it is prohibited for me to tell you to sell your dangerous, dangerous motorcycle and to buy a nice, safe sedan when my real intention is to acquire your motorcycle. Similarly, one may not mislead others in religious matters, such as by serving them non-kosher food.
In a similar vein, Deuteronomy 13:7-12 commands us not to entice others to idolatry. We are told regarding such an enticer (called a meisis) that we are not permitted to love him, to hear his side of the story or to assist him – even if his life is in danger! Not only that, a meisis is not afforded the advantages that other defendants enjoy in capital cases under Torah law. Leading others astray is seen as a terrible crime.
But as bad as being misled is, one is not exempt from repercussions if another person should lead him astray. Also in Deuteronomy 13 (verses 2-6) is the law of the false prophet (navi sheker). While it’s certainly prohibited to be a false prophet, the particular focus here is on not being misled:
“You shall not heed the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams because Hashem your God is testing you, to prove whether you really love Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (13:4).
In fact, the (real) prophets constantly warned against being taken in by false prophets because being misled is not consequence-free. (This is true even today. One should choose his or her religious role models carefully because there are individuals – both on the left and on the right of the religious spectrum – who misrepresent Torah values for personal gain or to further partisan causes.)
We are even warned not to lead ourselves astray! In fact, we repeat this warning constantly as part of the Shema:
“…remember all the commandments of Hashem in order to perform them and do not wander after your hearts and after your eyes, after which one tends to go astray” (Numbers 15:39).
Yes, we have a concept of “tinok shenishba,” a person who doesn’t know any better, and doing the wrong thing because one was misled is certainly better than doing it with malice aforethought but that’s not carte blanche. It’s still better to do the right thing.
Consequences of being led astray can come in many varieties. Let’s say I sell you a steak dinner. If I trick you into eating spoiled meat, the consequence can be physical. If I talk you into overpaying for your meal, the consequence is financial. If I serve you non-kosher food, the consequence is spiritual. None of these is your fault but they’re all consequences.
Acting improperly because one was misled in religious matters may not be a “sin” per se, but it’s still a consequence we should guard against, just as we do against physical and financial consequences. Even if it’s not our fault, being led astray can still cause us to lose the race.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.