It is a lesson that I was first taught as a schoolchild, just beginning to study Torah. But, like so many other important lessons in life, I ignored it back then, only to finally learn it as an adult. But then, I learned it the hard way.
The lesson was a simple one: Don't make important decisions without consulting others.
Self-confidence is a good thing, and it is typical of younger people. Sometimes, however, too much self-confidence can lead us astray so that we make choices in life without first discussing them with someone older or wiser, or even just with someone whose perspective is different from our own.
Admittedly, when I was a much younger man, my self-confidence often took the form of, "No one else can tell me what to do." It was not necessarily a healthy self-confidence but instead reflected my need to assert my autonomy and independence.
Luckily, the mistakes I made by not consulting others were never disastrous. They required correction, and correction was fortunately possible. Too often, however, the failure to consult others results in mistakes that are irreversible, and occasionally even tragic.
My initial exposure to this lesson was in the fourth grade. We were studying one of the earliest verses in the entire Bible, which appears in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Bereshis. (Genesis 1:1-6:8) The verse is a deceptively simple one. It follows a passage which describes how the Almighty, having created the entire animal world, concluded that "this was good." He then says, "Let us make Man in our image, after our likeness." (Genesis 1:26)
Note that the Lord uses the first person plural as He contemplates creating mankind: "Let us make Man in our image, after our likeness." Shouldn't He have used the first-person singular? Should not verse 26 have read, "Let Me make Man in My image, after My likeness."? Whom else can the Almighty conceivably be addressing besides Himself? Dare we conclude that the One God had a partner, perhaps even several partners, in creating the human race?
These were the questions that our fourth grade teacher, the late Theodore "Teddy" Silbermintz, who also masterfully conducted our school choir, asked us to consider. I must confess that, although we understood these questions, we were much too young to be troubled by them. But others in the course of Jewish history were profoundly troubled by these questions.
For example, the Talmud (Megillah 9a) records that in ancient times, King Ptolemy gathered 72 Jewish elders, confined each of them to separate rooms, and ordered them to translate the entire "Torah of your master Moses." Unanimously, they carefully substituted the singular pronoun "I" for the plural pronoun "us." They took the liberty of rendering our verse thus: "I will make man in My image, after My likeness." By altering the original text, they assured that King Ptolemy could never again contend that two or more gods created the world. They deprived him of the ability of finding support in our Torah for his polytheistic theology.
In another Talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 38b), we learn that the Sadducees, who, unlike Ptolemy, were thoroughly familiar with the accurate original text, did indeed conclude that more than one god created man. The fact is that in verse 27, the Torah “self-corrects” and reverts to the singular pronoun to preclude misinterpretations of our verse 26. But the Sadducess were apparently unimpressed by that “self-correction.”
But the question posed by the use of the plural pronoun in verse 6 remains. To answer it, our dear teacher excitedly paraphrased Rashi's answer to us, in a language we could understand and in words that can I still recall almost verbatim:
"Despite the risk that the plural form would be misinterpreted by nonbelievers, Scripture did not refrain from sharing some practical common sense and prescribing a dose of humility. The Supreme Being consulted with His heavenly court before embarking upon an act as crucial as the creation of mankind. We must learn that no matter how lofty is one’s position in life, he must consult with others, even ‘lesser’ others. Don't be blinded by your ego. Realize that others have much to offer to you as you go about making your life's decisions. Their light may illuminate your darkness."
As I continued to pursue Talmud study over the many decades since that fourth grade “teachable moment,” I discovered numerous other passages conveying the identical message.
One of them is a teaching of Rabbi Hanina bar Papa (Bava Batra 75b), a teaching with prophetic implications for an urgent contemporary issue:
The Holy One, Blessed be He, sought to confine the area of Jerusalem, as it is written: "'Where are you going?’ I asked. 'To measure Jerusalem,' he replied. 'To see how long and how wide it is to be.' But then the ministering angels objected: 'Master of the Universe, you created so many cities in Your world for which You set limits to neither their length nor their breadth. Yet for Jerusalem, which contains Your Name, where Your Holy Temple is located, and in which the righteous are to be found, for her You set limits?' The Lord immediately relented: 'Run to that young man and tell him: Jerusalem shall be peopled as a city without walls, so many shall be the men and cattle it contains.'" (Zechariah 2:6-8)
One cannot help but wonder. The Lord of the Universe is the creator of heaven and earth. He is aware of all secrets and knows the future until the end of time. Does He require the input of His ministering angels to sensitize Him to Jerusalem's honor?
Apparently, what we are to learn from this puzzling prophetic passage is the exact same lesson as Rashi teaches us in verse 26 of this week's Torah portion. The Almighty, as it were, goes out of His way to model for us the essential importance of listening to others and not “going it alone” when decisions must be made.
The great 19th century ethicist, Rabbi Israel Salanter, insists that one who neglects to consult others while making important decisions is not qualified to be a leader of a Jewish community. This is what he writes in one of his letters:
"He who stands firm and stubbornly maintains his original position without seeking the advice of others is prohibited from becoming a rabbi or rabbinical judge. If he clings to his original position and does not consider the possibility that he is in error, he is doubly negligent; not only has he stubbornly adhered to error and faulty reasoning, but he has mislead those who follow his teachings and rulings."
There is no better way to conclude this week's message than by quoting King Solomon, that wisest of men:
"A wise man is strength;
A knowledgeable man exerts power;
For by stratagems you wage war,
And victory comes with many advisors." (Proverbs 24:5-6)