Is Being Right All That’s Left?

Perhaps I have lived my whole life in a mistake, says the poet, Yehuda Amichai.  The God of my childhood also is a mistake, yet he is still called God.

If history demonstrates that a heroic and sacred vision was short-sighted, are heroes still heroes?  Is God still God?  The tension between belief and mistake propels Amichai’s poem from its first verb, he’emanti/I believed to the concluding Amen/I believe:

When I was young I believed with all my heart that the Hula
swamp had to be drained, but all of the colorful birds
fled and now, after almost half a century,
they are again filling it with water, because it was a mistake.  Perhaps
I have lived my whole life in a mistake.  The God of my childhood also
is a mistake, yet he is still called God.
But a complete mistake makes for a complete life
the same as complete belief.  The words “a mistake lives forever”
I have made into a soothing melody, and from the words
“everyone disappoints” I have made a dance step by day
and a lullaby by night. Amen

(Click here for the Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

Ancient sages tested the tension between belief and mistake through a Torah verse describing the outcome of an appeal that rises to the highest authorities:  You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you… you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.  (Deuteronomy 17:11)

The rabbis pushed this verse to represent the deepest conflict between personal belief and public decision.  In the face of the highest ruling, they say, you must not deviate … even if they tell you that what is right is really left.  In the face of a clear mistake, one must trust a vision that is larger than a point of view.

Sefer Ha-Chinnuch, a 13th century Spanish commentary, adds its voice to the conversation of Scripture and sages:

Even if they [the court] are mistaken in a particular matter among many, it is not our right to break away from them.  Rather, we should act according to their mistaken decision.  It is better to live with a single mistake and leave the tradition in tact than for each individual to act according to his own mind, for that is tantamount to destroying tradition…. From this same commandment we are commanded that the minority party of the sages should defer to the majority party.

(Click here for biblical and rabbinic texts)

The existence of a minority and a majority party proclaims that vigorous debate is of high value.  It is not the case that being right is all that’s left.  Belief, not certainty, launches a future in which the past is always at stake, and complete mistake along with complete belief are regular features of a complete life.  Everyone disappoints, says the poet, bringing a Psalm verse (Psalms 116:11) to strengthen him by day and soothe him by night.  Amen, concludes the poet—this, I believe.

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2 Responses to Is Being Right All That’s Left?

  1. David Winer says:

    This reminds me of a lovely quote by Rabbi Milton Steinberg: “When I was a young man, I admired wise people. Now that I am older, I admire kind people.” I believe that his life experience did not simply cause him to value kindness more than wisdom; but that he grew to recognize that the highest wisdom is kindness. This does not devalue wisdom.
    Similarly, the highest Truth may be found in Tradition, in the journey of our predecessors and ourselves in living each moment for the sake of increasing our understanding of God and what God wants of us. Tradition grows with each generation; Truth is a constant Presence for each one. Both are for the sake of Heaven.

  2. Evan says:

    As I struggle with the role of Halachah for progressive Jews, your teaching reminds me that any new understandings or revised applications of Halachah must be made with a reverences for those that came before. Even their mistakes must be honored. So if Mustard Seed on Pesach has been declared kitniyot, and we understand that to be a mistake, we best serve as Jews and for the sake of Judaism by making changes which honor the error yet becons the beautiful birds to return. Thanks you for this amazing teaching. Evan.

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