by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – September 4, 2013

As the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, comes upon us, it is advisable to keep in mind a comment by R. Barukh HaLevi Epstein, author of Torah Temima, as he was once listening to a man denigrating others over what appeared to be senseless mistakes.  The comment, made in the presence of and with full approbation by his uncle R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the venerated rosh yeshiva in Volozhin, was published in R. Epstein’s Mekor Barukh and later translated in My Uncle the Netziv pp. 102 – 105.

The man’s disparaging comments revolved around Jews who had been duped into believing false messiahs and the like, arguing that this happened since they did not sufficiently investigate the matters at hand and, therefore, had to live out their lives in shame.  A subtle reference seemed to be made towards an editor of a religious newspaper who mistakenly was duped by the claims of a certain “Yemenite messiah” and who was the son-in-law of someone present at the discussion.

After hearing this man’s diatribe, R. Epstein, then a young man, whispered to his venerable uncle whom he had accompanied: “What’s he getting so excited about?  Is the honor of Rabbi Akiva any less because he believed that Bar Kokhva was the messiah?  He went so far as to carry his vessels, citing Biblical proofs that he was the messiah!  [See Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4:8; Eicha Rabba 2:2 no. 4; Mishne Torah Melakhim 11:3]”

“And who is greater than Achiya HaShiloni,” R. Epstein continued, “who was a member of the court of King David and the teacher of the prophet Elijah?  Yet he was taken in by the deceit of Yeravam ben Nevat and signed a letter agreeing to set up a golden calf in Bet El and in Dan, as our Sages say in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a.”

“In recent times,” R. Epstein concluded, “the Tzemach Tzedek [R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1789 – 1866] has told us how many wise Torah scholars were convinced by the fool Asher Lemlin who proclaimed the imminent arrival of the messiah.  Even the Tzemach Tzedek’s own grandfather, Rav Zeligman, a righteous Torah scholar, was so convinced of Lemlin’s ‘prophecy’ that he shattered the oven he used for baking matzot, as he was sure that for next Pesach he would be baking his matzot in the land of Israel!  But even so, no one thought any less of these great individuals after they were shown to have been mistaken.  They were not taken to task, not by their peers and not by history.  If so, why should the respect of lesser people be any lower if they too were mistaken but later admitted their mistake?”

Upon hearing his young nephew’s arguments, R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, visibly impressed, encouraged him to repeat them to the rest of the audience.

Indeed, mistakes happen to the best of us, and making a mistake should not be a cause for ridicule or name-calling or character assassination.  Some of the greatest and brightest and most intelligent people have made significant errors in judgment.  Yet, their talents and intellect were still recognized for what they were – as they should be.  In fact, this is what we ask of G-d during our own atonement, to overlook our errors and not judge us for them, but to see us for our general good qualities.  If we wish G-d to judge us so, should we be harsher towards others?  And if we choose to judge others harshly rather than overlook their errors, should it surprise us if G-d does the same towards us?

Let us act towards others as we would wish G-d to act towards us, and may we in its merit be granted many years of happiness in all our endeavors.

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