We have often commented on the fact that our tradition does not shy away from pointing out the weaknesses and failings of our great Sages. This idea is first found in the Torah itself, which does not hide or excuse the sins – minor as those sins might be – of our greats. Even when it is not necessary to read a story in a negative light, such as Abraham going to Egypt when famine strikes the land of Israel, our commentaries often do just that (see, for example, Ramban, Breisheet 12:8).
Not every question has an answer and not every problem has a solution. This may be depressing for some, especially the young and idealistic (all too often, they tend to be one and the same), but this is something one realizes more and more as one gains life experience. This may be frustrating, but it is also ennobling, pushing us to search further and further to find solutions. While some questions may eventually find answers, some may not; often, a new answer is needed for an old question. Different circumstances require different approaches.
Judaism has long rejected the notion that the ends justify the means. One of the most basic of Talmudic rules is that a mitzvah haba b’aveirah, a mitzvah enabled through the commission of sin, is rendered invalid. The third chapter of masechet Sukkah, lulav hagazul, the stolen lulav, gets its name from the fact that a stolen lulav is an invalid lulav and one gains nothing by using one, but may indeed be helping to create a desecration of the name of G-d.
In his best-selling book, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely notes how very rare it is for humans to make decisions in absolute terms. Rather, we weigh our options, compare one choice to another, and decide accordingly. It is the relative merits of one choice against another that determines our actions. Truly, everything is relative and context is crucial.
In the days before instant replay took over much of sports officiating, the rule of thumb was that the ‘umpire is right even when he is wrong’. In the fast paced nature of sports it is inevitable that the umpire (or referee) will make the occasional mistake and such was accepted as part of the game. Occasionally, actually very rarely, games were won or lost due to a “bad call” but such was the price of live action.
One of the most inspiring aspects of the Torah is its very real portrayal of its personalities. People—heroes and villains alike – are presented in all their complexity. The sins of our greats are not only not whitewashed, but are often highlighted and punished all too severely. As Nehama Leibowitz often noted, the Torah is no respecter of persons. The Torah does not hesitate to tell us that “the brothers hated Yosef” (if they did not, we might be eating bread now!) or even that Leah was the hated wife.