From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
In democracies as well as in Jewish law, majority rules. According to the Mishnah in Sanhedrin, a beis din must always consist of an odd number of judges lest there be a hung jury. But sometimes the majority gets it wrong.
This week’s story of the 12 spies sent by Moshe to the Promised Land is a case in point. Only two of the dozen, Yehoshua and Calev, remained faithful to their leader, to the purpose of their mission, and to Gâ€‘d’s assurance that it was a good land. Despite the fact that they were really only sent on a reconnaissance mission to determine how best to approach the coming conquest, 10 of the 12 spies soured. Their negative report was designed to intimidate the people and discourage them from entering a ferocious, “inhabitant-devouring” land. Instead of suggesting the best way forward, they came to the categorical conclusion that “we cannot ascend.”
And the people responded accordingly. They cried out to Moshe, lamenting their very departure from Egypt. “Why must we now die by the sword?” And Gâ€‘d decreed that this generation was not worthy of His precious Promised Land. Furthermore, this day of weeping, where they cried for no good reason, would become a time of tears and a day of weeping for generations. Indeed, our sages explain, that day was Tishah B’Av, the day that would become a time of mourning for the destruction of our holy temples and many other national calamities throughout history.
Why did the people not follow the two good spies, Yehoshua and Calev, instead of the others? The obvious answer? They were outvoted and outnumbered, 10—2, no contest. Majority rules.
Tragically, though, they backed the losers. And the result was an extended vacation in the Wilderness for them and a tragedy for all of us to this day. So although we may be staunch democrats and believers in the democratic process, clearly, there will be times when the minority is right.
The saintly Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohen Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chaim, was once challenged by a fellow Jew who was a somewhat educated cynic. “Rabbi,” he argued, “doesn’t the Torah itself say that we must follow the majority? Well, the overwhelming majority of Jews today are not religious. So you religious Jews must come over to our way of thinking!” The Chofetz Chaim replied with a story:
“Recently, I had occasion to be traveling by coach back home from an important trip. En route, the coachman distributed generous measures of vodka to his passengers to keep them warm and content. The coachman, too, helped himself to much more vodka than he should have.
“When we came to a crossroads, there was confusion as to which way to turn. Most people argued that the left road was the correct path. I was one of the only sober passengers on board, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that we needed to take the road to the right. So I ask you, my friend, should I too have followed the majority? They were hopelessly drunk, and their judgment was very impaired. Thank Gâ€‘d I prevailed.”
All too often, the values and judgment calls of the Big Wide World are simply wrong. No matter how outnumbered moral people may be, we will continue to follow the path of decency and sanity because so much of the world is intoxicated with all sorts of new ideas, and their judgment is faulty. We Jews have never played the numbers game. Always, we have been the smallest of nations. We are not known for our majority but for our morals.
Some years ago, at the time of the fictitious Jenin “massacre” where Israel was accused of atrocities against the Palestinians, then Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Anan questioned, “Can it be that the whole world is wrong and Israel is right?” Guess what. He was spot on. The whole world was wrong and Israel was right. It was subsequently proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there simply was no massacre. It was all fraudulent propaganda promulgated by our enemies.
For many years, my wife taught in a girls’ high school. Once, a former student of hers asked if she could speak to her privately. She needed some guidance. She was now a young adult woman and everyone was telling her she was crazy for insisting that she be a virgin at her chupah. She was seeking my wife’s affirmation that she hadn’t lost her sanity.
All too often it is the big, wide world that is stark, raving meshuga, veering drunkenly out of control. It takes substantial strength of character to resist the pull of the drunken majority.
Please Gâ€‘d, we will be men and women of stature and spirit. May we be inspired with the courage to stand up and be counted, even if it means being that lone voice in the wilderness. Otherwise, we may never get to our destination. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.