In democracies as well as in Jewish law, the majority rules. A beit din (“rabbinical court”) must always consist of an odd number of judges, lest there be a hung jury.
But the fact is, sometimes the majority gets it wrong.
This week’s story of the 12 spies sent by Moses to the Promised Land is a case in point.
Only two of the dozen, Joshua and Caleb, remained faithful to their leader, to the purpose of their mission, and to G-d’s assurance that it was a good land. Even though they were only sent on a reconnaissance mission to determine how best to strategically approach the coming conquest, 10 of the 12 spies soured. Their negative report was designed to intimidate the people and discourage them from entering a ferocious, “inhabitant-devouring land.” Instead of suggesting the best way forward, they came to the categorical conclusion that “we cannot ascend.”
And the people responded accordingly. They cried out to Moses, lamenting their very departure from Egypt. “Why must we now die by the sword?” And G-d decreed that this generation was not worthy of His precious Promised Land. Furthermore, this day of weeping, where they cried for no good reason, would become a day of tears for generations. Indeed, our sages explain, that day was Tisha B’Av—the day that would become a day of mourning for the destruction of our holy temples and quite a few other national calamities throughout history.
Now, the question is: Why did the people not follow the two good spies, Joshua and Caleb, instead of the others? The obvious answer? They were outvoted and outnumbered, 10 vs. 2—no contest. Majority rules.
Tragically, though, they backed the losers. And the result was an extended vacation in the wilderness for them and a tragedy for all of us to this day.
So, although we may be staunch democrats and believers in the democratic process, clearly, there will be times when the minority is right.
The great pre-war sage, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chaim, was once challenged by a fellow Jew who was a somewhat educated cynic. “Rabbi,” he argued, “doesn’t the Torah itself say that we must follow the majority? Well, the overwhelming majority of Jews today are not religious. So, you religious Jews must come over to our way of thinking!”
The rabbi replied with a story.
“Recently, I had occasion to be traveling by coach back home from an important trip. On route, the coachman distributed generous measures of vodka to his passengers to keep them warm and content. The coachman, too, helped himself to much more vodka than he should have.
“When we came to a crossroads, there was confusion as to which way to turn. Most people argued that the left road was the correct path. I was one of the only sober passengers on board, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that we needed to take the road to the right. So, I ask you, my friend, should I too have followed the majority? They were hopelessly drunk, and their judgment was impaired. Thank G-d I prevailed.”
All too often, the values and judgment calls of “the world” are simply wrong. No matter how outnumbered moral people may be, we will continue to follow the path of decency and sanity because, sadly, so much of that world is intoxicated with all sorts of new, unholy and unhealthy ideas, and their judgment, too, is impaired.
We Jews have never played the numbers game. Always, we have been the smallest of nations. We are not known for our majority but for our morals.
Twenty years ago in the spring of 2002, at the time of Israel’s “Battle of Jenin” and resulting fictitious Jenin “massacre,” the late Kofi Annan (then secretary-general of the United Nations) questioned: “Can it be that the whole world is wrong, and Israel is right?” Guess what. He was spot on. The whole world was wrong, and Israel was right. There simply was no massacre. It was just another Big Lie in the Middle East’s tapestry of falsehood.
My wife taught high school for many years. Once, a former student of hers asked if she could speak to her privately. She needed some guidance. She was now a young woman, and everyone was telling her that she was crazy for insisting that she be a virgin at her chuppah. She sought my wife’s affirmation that she hadn’t lost her sanity.
All too often, it is the world that is stark, raving meshuga, veering drunkenly out of control. It takes substantial strength of character to resist the pull of the maniacal majority.
Please G-d; we will be men and women of stature and of spirit. May we be inspired with the courage to stand up and be counted, even if it means being that lone voice in the wilderness. Otherwise, we may never get to our destination.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.