Shofetim: Marathon Man
Awhile he holds some false way, undebarr’d
By thwarting signs, and braves
The freshening wind and blackening waves.
And then the tempest strikes him; and between
The lightning bursts is seen
Only a driving wreck,
And the pale master on his spar-strew-deck
With anguish’d face and flying hair
Grasping the rudder hard,
Still bent to make some port he knows not where,
Still standing for some false, impossible shore.
“A Summer Night”
We walk together almost every morning. Actually, he runs, I, ahem, walk. He is a marathon runner, so when he disappeared for a week, I assumed that he was running a marathon somewhere out of town. He showed up this morning on crutches. A bike rider rode straight into him, knocked him over, and my co-walker tore his Achilles tendon.
“What are you doing here on crutches? Are you planning on running your laps like that?”
“Yes!” Off he ran. He was still faster than am I. (I already suspected his sanity as he only eats raw vegetables.) The marathon man was as determined as the sailor in the Matthew Arnold poem. The man would not give in.
A marathon man appears in this week’s portion: Shofetim. (Deuteronomy 17:11) He is a great scholar and is absolutely committed to truth. When a local court rules against him, he ‘grasps the rudder hard, still bent on his port”. He is summoned to a higher court, out argues them on every issue, and is incensed when they too rule against his opinion. He courageously takes a public stand. He knows that he is right.
He is summoned from one court to another even higher and he continues to stand for what he has determined is the truth. He refuses to give in, until he finally stands before the Sanhedrin – The Great Court that sits in the Temple Courtyard and they hear his case.
He does battle with the greatest sages of his generation. They argue over a case of serious law, such as whether a specific woman is considered married, and “with anguish’d face and flying hair” he holds true to his course. A torn Achilles tendon will not hold him back, nor will crutches. He is the marathon man who will not give in.
The Sanhedrin rules against him and, frustrated and angry, he leaves the court and sticks to his guns. He refuses to obey the Sanhedrin’s ruling and tells the woman to follow his original ruling.
This Marathon Man is a Zakein Mamrei – A Rebellious Sage – and he will be publicly executed on the next pilgrimage festival.
He may continue to argue that he is right and everyone else is wrong. In fact, he must argue for what he feels is true. However, he may not publicly act against the Sanhedrin’s ruling. We live according to the transmission of the Oral Law and his public actions, not arguments, shake the foundations of the transmission and system of the Oral Law.
We are encouraged to be Marathon Men in our arguments, but there is a point at which we may not practice against the rulings of the greatest Torah authorities of our time.
The greatest of the Marathon Men is the one who will not bend intellectually. However, he will submit to the structure of the Oral Law. That takes strength, at least from those of us who are fighters for truth. Our greatest moments are when we continue to fight for what we believe is true but will not publicly practice against the Oral Law.
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