Sunday, March 23, 2008

God versus The Gedolim

The last verse of the book of Esther is:

כי מרדכי היהודי משנה למלך אחשורוש וגדול ליהודים ורצוי לרב אחיו...
For Mordechai the Jew was second to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted by most of his brothers...
The Gemara (Megillah 16b) infers from the phrase "accepted by most of his brothers" that some of his brothers did not accept him -- a minority (מקצת) of the Sanhedrin distanced themselves from him. This is further explained by pointing out that in the first return from the Persian/Babylonian exile Mordechai is listed fifth among the returnees (Ezra 2:2) and in the second return he is listed sixth (Nechemiah 7:7). Why did he descend in the list? The Gemara quotes Rav Yosef who says that the study of Torah is greater than saving lives. After the people in the first return to Israel failed to rebuild the Temple, Mordechai returned to Persia and served in a capacity to his people of being close to the king and preventing the destruction of the Jews. However, his neglect of (public) teaching of the Torah in order to save the Jewish people is condemned by the Bible, as evidenced in his descent from fifth on the list to sixth. (Someone else should have taken the role of saving lives so Mordechai could teach Torah.)

Click here to read moreThis bothered me, not just because of the difficulty in understanding how teaching Torah could be greater than saving thousands of lives. Let's set that aside and deal with the less obvious problem. The minority of the Sanhedrin distanced themselves from Mordechai. That means that the majority agreed with his decision! If so, shouldn't the conclusion be that saving lives is greater than the study of Torah, following the majority of the Sanhedrin who agreed with Mordechai? Why did Rav Yosef reject this majority position?

The only answer I could find to this is given by the Rif in the Ein Ya'akov. He says that since the Bible (in Ezra and Nechemiah) disapproved of Mordechai's action, by moving him down in the list, we see that God sided with the minority view against Mordechai and the majority.

Of course, one could object that these matters are "not in heaven". The Torah was given to us and we do not allow heavenly viewpoints to decide on matters of halakhah. However, in this case it is a biblical verse that offers the heavenly viewpoint, so I think it is admissible to the discussion.

One could propose that both views were correct, in the spirit of "these and those are the words of the living God." But is that really a viable position against a biblical verse? And how can it be said that it was a viable position before the verse was written? Once it was true it cannot later be incorrect. Rather, it must have always been incorrect. While the verse is not explicit on this issue, there seems to be no debate on its implied meaning.

In other words, the majority is not always right, even the majority of Gedolim that includes someone as great and holy as Mordechai. While we must still follow the majority view of a Sanhedrin when they issue an official ruling, that does not necessarily make them correct. And so it was with Mordechai, where the majority of the Sanhedrin agreed that saving lives takes precedence over the public teaching of Torah, while God, and eventually the Bible (as explained by the Gemara), disagreed.

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