Can a tzaddik make a mistake?
Of course! We see that our greatest, most righteous leaders were capable of errors of various kinds! This can include both factual errors and errors in judgment. Just a few examples include:
- Avraham and Sarah disagreed about how to handle the situation involving Sarah’s servant Hagar and her son with Avraham, Yishmael; God told Avraham that Sarah was right (Genesis 21:12);
- Yitzchak favored his older son, Eisav, as his successor but his Rivka knew that their younger son, Yaakov, was the true heir, a fact to which Yitzchak eventually conceded. (In Genesis 27:33, he ratified the blessing that he had originally given to Yaakov in error);
- Yaakov appears to lose an argument with his sons in Genesis 34; at the very least he lets them have the last word. Also, some questionable parenting decisions (as described in Genesis 37) appear to be responsible for the strife between Yoseif and the rest of the brothers;
- Moshe erred when he said that the Jews wouldn’t believe him (Exodus 4:1), for which he was punished with a mild case of tzaraas. He lost his temper at the Jews, yelled at them and struck the rock, for which he was denied entry to Israel (Numbers 20). He wasn’t even infallible in matters of halacha. For example, Aharon corrected Moshe in a matter of halacha, to which Moshe immediately conceded (Leviticus 10:20). Moshe was known to have forgotten halachos on other occasions, as well, such as during the incident with Tzelofchad’s daughters (see Numbers 27:5 and Rashi there);
- King David clearly erred in the matter of Batsheva (II Samuel 11) but he also didn’t know who was telling him the truth in II Samuel 19 – Ziva or Mephiboshes – so his solution to divide the property between them was unfair to whoever was the innocent party. He was also played by his son Avshalom, who staged a coup (II Samuel 14-15); after the coup was put down, David’s mourning for his rebellious son’s demise was so bad for his own troops’ morale that his officers had to tell him to knock it off (II Samuel 19).
I could provide countless examples of righteous Biblical personages making errors of various kinds but I think you get the idea. Errors on the part of the righteous can also be found in Talmudic literature. For example:
- Rabbi Meir was corrected by his wife Bruriah when he prayed for local hooligans to die rather than repent (Brachos 10a);
- Bruriah also reprimanded Rav Yosi HaGlili for being chattier than necessary with women (Eiruvin 53b);
- Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah was chastised by a little girl for taking a shortcut across a field (also in Eiruvin 53b).
You can also find much more contemporary examples, such as one famous incident involving the Steipler Gaon (d. 1985). The Gaon once reprimanded a young child for learning Gemara in shul instead of davening. The child showed the Gaon that his “Gemara” was actually a very large siddur and he was in fact davening. The Gaon immediately apologized for jumping to the wrong conclusion. But the story doesn’t end there! Six years later, the Gaon showed up at the boy’s bar mitzvah just to apologize again. The forgiveness of a child not being halachically effective, the Steipler made sure to apologize a second time as soon as the boy reached the age of majority.
We believe that our Torah leaders are great people, gifted with insight and wisdom often many orders of magnitude beyond our own. But they’re not perfect. No human being is. (Koheles 7:20 – “For there is no righteous person on Earth who only does good and never sins.” In other words, “nobody’s perfect!”) To suggest that a human being is infallible borders on idolatry because perfection is exclusively God’s domain.
The test of a tzaddik is not perfection; that’s an unachievable standard. The difference between the righteous and the rest of us is in how we handle our shortcomings. When you and I are wrong, we tend to double down on our mistakes. We get sucked into flame wars online defending and justifying our mistakes even after they’ve been brought to our attention. But that’s not how tzadikkim react. Moshe acknowledged when Aharon was right. David conceded when Nathan the prophet chastised him about Batsheva. Rather than burying stories in which he was corrected by women and children, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananiah shared them so we could learn from them. The Steipler Gaon went out of his way to apologize to a child who didn’t even remember his “offense.”
The righteous aren’t great because they never make mistakes. They’re great because they own their mistakes. They admit them, they try to make things right, and they grow from the experience.
We can potentially do that, too. We just have to get over ourselves first, and that’s the hard part. But that overcoming of ego is a huge part of what makes someone a tzaddik in the first place. Being righteous isn’t about being right all the time; it’s very much about being able to see beyond the “I.”
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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