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Parshat Shoftim: The Joy of Getting it Wrong


They have changed the rules at the US Open Tennis tournament going on right now. There are no more line judges. Those are the men and women who scream, Out! if the ball is wide or long. If you have been watching tennis and are hearing that being yelled, it’s not a real person but a computer generated voice – much like the fake engine noise they are putting in electric vehicles. Now, all calls at the matches are being made through the use of electronic eyes.


I am not a fan. I know some players are in favour but I think it has eliminated a very entertaining and meaningful part of the game. And I have the Talmud to back me up on this. 


There is a pretty famous event in the Talmud where Rabbi Eliezer is having a disagreement with the rest of his colleagues over an issue in Jewish law. He presents all kinds of arguments backing his position but the rabbis don’t budge. Rabbi Eliezer then decides to pull out his big guns. He declares that the carob tree in front of them will prove him correct. Whereupon the tree suddenly uproots itself and goes flying hundreds of yards. 


Nice trick and certainly very dramatic, but it does nothing to convince the rabbis who claim you can’t bring any proof from a carob tree.  


Ok. So Rabbi Eliezer then declares the canal of water in front of them will prove him correct. And lo and behold the waters stop flowing in their normal direction and start flowing backwards. Cool no? Not to the rabbis who respond that you cannot bring proof from a stream. He tries one more miraculous proof but that also does not impress the rabbis. 


Seeing that he was getting nowhere with his bag of miracles, Rabbi Eliezer then finally pulls out the ace up his sleeve and boldly proclaims that if he is right, Heaven itself with prove it so. And guess what? It does! A Bat Kol a Heavenly Voice booms forth and announces: “Why bother arguing with Rabbi Eliezer who the Halacha follows in all places?” 


Yeah, Rabbi Eliezer is the man. Talk about a definitive endorsement! We now have God Himself declaring Rabbi Eliezer right, not only about the issue at hand, but about anything in Jewish law. 


You would think this would finally convince the rabbis, but it doesn’t and they simply reply, “The Torah is not in the Heavens.”


And herein lies the crux of the matter. The rabbis were not saying that Rabbi Eliezer was a charlatan, nor were they disputing the authenticity of his miracles and even his summoning of God to his position. What they were saying was that what he did doesn’t jive with the system we have for deciding Jewish Law. Once the Torah was given at Sinai, it was given with a basic principle that when an issue arises as to what to do, there is discussion and argument about it but ultimately it is decided by the majority. Even if you have God on your side, we still go with the majority. 


When God gave the Torah at Sinai there was an understanding that not every scenario and situation could be addressed. Things will change and new issues will arise. The concern then is how to know what is correct in those new circumstances. There were two choices in front of God on how we could go forward post-Sinai: Have God direct a prophet to tell us what to do in every instance, or have us figure it out by ourselves based on the principles and laws He gave us through Moshe. 


God chose the latter and for good reason. Each option has a plus and a minus. The Prophet path would assure we would always do what is 100% correct. How could it not – it’s coming from God directly? But the negative is that we are Zombies. We don’t have to think for ourselves. We just go to the God slot-machine, put in our query and Boom! – out comes the perfectly right answer.


But by figuring it out ourselves without a prophet telling us what to do means we get to grow up. We get to mature along with this Torah. We are partners and not just passive participants along for the ride on the coattails on a few chosen seers. Yeah we might get it wrong sometimes, but it’s a price worth paying that gives us a greater stake in our Torah. It makes it much more real and dynamic and, most importantly, personal. 


It is very similar to the parent who has raised a child with values and morals but cannot forever be the helicopter Mom or Dad making their child’s decisions for them to ensure they never do anything wrong or ever get hurt. No, they need to pull away and let the child decide on their own – even if that means they will make mistakes. Yup, even when the parent sees the child is choosing something not optimal and it will hurt them, once Mom and Dad have done everything they can, they gotta just shut up and move off. It’s the only way their kid will ever grow up to be an independent adult. 


So yeah, Rabbi Eliezer had God on his side. On this and other issues, Rabbi Eliezer was correct in an absolute sense. But who cares – none of that matters. We want to live with imperfection and are willing to embrace getting it wrong at times so we can have a system where we can grow – by ourselves and not through some outside party doing it for us. Not even God.  


Which brings me back to tennis. It was a lot more fun when they had line judges calling the shots. Way back in the day there was no technological assistance and it made for some heated discussions. Then they adopted the Hawk-Eye technology to see if the ball landed out or just clipped the line by a millimetre or two. But even then the player had to decide if he or she would use their allotted limited challenges to the call. 


And wasn’t it fun when that happened? The shot came up on the big screen, and as it did the crowd began to clap. And as the computer graphic started showing the trajectory of the ball, the clapping got louder and louder as all awaited the outcome and verdict with bated breath. And when is showed that the ball was ever so slightly in or out, the crowd would react with, “Ooooo!” or “Ahhhh!”  Often when it was shown to be in, the camera would zero in on the line judge as if to proudly display the accuracy of the human spirit. 


But alas this is no more. There are no more line judges at tennis matches. All they got is a Rabbi Eliezer somewhere in some booth off-court summoning God to give us all the right answers all of the time. And because of that, tennis has lost some of its soul. Thankfully, though, the Torah has not. 


And it really doesn’t matter

 If I’m wrong – I’m right

Where I belong – I’m right

Where I belong

-The Beatles

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