Parashat Debarim- Tolerating Different Opinions
The first verse in Parashat Debarim lists the names of the places in which Moshe delivered his final rebuke to Beneh Yisrael. However, these places do not actually exist. The Midrash explains that these names are actually allusions to the major sins that Beneh Yisrael committed during their journey through the wilderness. For example, “Di Zahab” – which means “abundant gold” – alludes to the sin of the golden calf, and “Laban” (“white”) refers to the people’s complaints about the manna, which was colored white.
The Rabbis infer from this indirect method of rebuke the importance of preserving people’s dignity when offering constructive criticism. Even in situations where it is warranted to criticize, it must be done delicately and respectfully. Our Rabbis teach us in numerous contexts that even sinners deserve dignity and respect. There are times when we need to point out mistakes, but this does not give us license to humiliate a fellow Jew, even if he does not properly observe the Torah. Thus, for example, the Midrash comments that God’s angel killed the donkey that spoke with Bilam to criticize him, in order that it does not becomes a source of shame and humiliation for Bilam. Even Bilam, a heartless anti-Semite who sought to annihilate all of Am Yisrael, deserved his dignity. Certainly, then, we must be careful not to humiliate any of our fellow Jews – none of whom even approaches the sinfulness of Bilam.
And if we must avoid embarrassing sinners, then we must certainly exercise care in how we speak about observant Jews whose approaches and practices differ from ours. Needless to say, we cannot and must not tolerate ideas that are antithetical to Torah. But within the rubric of authentic Judaism, there is plenty of room for varying opinions on many different topics. Yeshiva students spend their days discussing and analyzing Mahalokot – differing views among the great Sages of the Talmud and later authorities. And they are all treated with equal reverence and importance. Different opinions exist among Torah scholars on a wide range of issues, and this is perfectly acceptable. We should each follow our own Rabbis, and certainly there is nothing wrong with having strongly-held views. But this does not give us the right to disparage or insult those who follow Hachamim who advocate different opinions.
The Gemara describes certain negative qualities that will characterize the generation before the arrival of Mashiah, one of them being “Ha’emet Tiheye Ne’ederet.” Literally, this means that “truth will be obscured,” meaning, truths that should be and always had been obvious and self-evident will become questionable. In our times, for example, low standards of modesty and integrity which would have been rejected without a second thought generations ago are now considered valid options. This is one manifestation of “Ha’emet Tiheye Ne’ederet.” Additionally, however, the term “Ne’ederet” refers to the phenomenon of “Eder” – “flock.” The Jewish people will form small, independent “flocks” that stay away from one another. Each “flock” will follow its “shepherd,” its Rabbi, and show no respect or regard for anything else. The prevailing attitude will be one of “It’s my way, or you’re out!” There will be little or no tolerance for differing views and opinions.
Unfortunately, this is happening in our generation. We have lost the message of the first verse of Sefer Debarim, which demands showing respect even for those with whom we rightfully disagree. We are entitled to hold our opinions, but without disparaging people who think and act differently.
The period before Tisha B’Ab is the opportune time to improve ourselves in this area, to recommit ourselves to respecting and preserving the dignity of all people, especially of those with whom we do not agree on important matters. It is through this tolerance for people who are different from us that we correct the flaw of “Sin’at Hinam,” the baseless hatred for which the Mikdash was destroyed, and we will then be deserving of the Temple’s restoration and the unfolding of our final redemption, speedily and in our days, Amen.