“And Hashem said to Avram, ‘Go for yourself from your land… to the land that I will show you.'” Hashem later reveals to Avram that “the land” He intended was Eretz Canaan, which would become Eretz Yisrael/The Land of Israel. Just after Avram arrived in Canaan, however, a famine took place, and Avram was compelled to leave Canaan and go to Egypt to sustain himself.
Ramban suggests that Avram actually sinned by leaving Canaan. He writes (12:10), “And let it be known, that Avraham Avinu (our forefather) sinned gravely (“cheit gadol”), unintentionally, [by going to Egypt], because, out of his own fear, he placed his wife (Sarah), a righteous woman, in great danger of sin. Rather, he should have placed his trust in Hashem, that He would safeguard him. Also, his very act of leaving The Land – where he had been told to go [by Hashem] – was a sin. G-d, in the midst of a hunger, would have redeemed him from death…”
Most commentaries disagree with the Ramban. How is it possible, contends Abarbanel, that Avram erred in going to Egypt? The Midrash (Avos de-Rabbi Nasan 33) counts the hunger in Canaan and Avram’s subsequent departure to Egypt as one of the “ten trials [of faith] with which Hashem tested Avraham”. It is illogical to say that one who survived the test (as our Sages testify concerning Avraham) could be labelled as a sinner!
Rabbi Shamshon Rafael Hirsch also disagrees with the Ramban. Before we consider Avraham blameworthy, he says, let us consider some facts more closely. The danger must have been of such a threatening nature, so removed from circumvention, that Avram felt he could not possibly avoid it. Now, when Ramban views this story with the hindsight of history, and says that Avram should have stayed in Canaan, he fails to take into account that Avram had no precedents upon which to draw.
Although R’ Hirsch himself disagrees, it is fascinating to see his comments regarding the Ramban. In a dissertation fundamental to Torah perspective (quoted in Artscroll Tanach Series, Bereishis vol. 1, p. 444), he comments:
Even were Avraham’s act truly blameworthy, it need not trouble us, because it is part of the Torah’s greatness that it never attempts to gloss over the flaws of even our greatest men as being infallible. The Torah does not conceal the faults and weaknesses of our great Sages (including Moshe!), and thus the Torah relates what occurred, not because it was exemplary, but because it did occur. This attests to the unadorned truthfulness of what it relates.
From the comment of the Ramban, we learn that Truth is the seal of our Torah, and we must not whitewash or appear as apologists for our spiritual heroes of the past.
Indeed, the entire Torah, both Written (Tanach) and Oral (Talmud and Midrash), is replete with errors of the greatest Sages in our history. Incidentally, this fact lends credence to those places where Oral tradition suggests that certain biblical stories which portray great people in an unflattering light have deeper meaning, and can not be understood by a cursory reading of the scriptures.
A certain tzaddik once commented, “People think that a tzaddik (a righteous man – often referring to a great Jewish leader) can’t sin. Or, conversely, if he has sinned, he is not a tzaddik. But neither are true. The tzaddik is remains a tzaddik, and the sin remains a sin.”
Why does the Torah do this? What would have been missing had the Torah conveniently omitted the faults and errors of our venerable leaders? Evidently, there is much to be learned.
I once read in one of Rabbi Avraham J. Twerski’s books the following thought. The Gemara (Gittin 43a) says, “A person can not fully grasp the Torah unless he has erred in it.” Making mistakes is part of the learning process. As the saying goes; we learn from our mistakes. In truth, there is much more to be learned from a mistake, and how it was corrected, than there is to be learned from something that has gone right from the outset. And imagine the insights one can find by studying the errors of the greatest sages in our history and learning from their failures! Had the Torah withheld this from us, we would have been lead to believe that to attain true greatness, absolute perfection is a necessity; there is no room for mistake. By teaching us that even the truly great err, we are encouraged to continue our own struggle for personal growth, even though we too ( – too often) err. And we gain insight by observing how they erred and what they did about it.
It is written (Mishlei/Proverbs 22:6), “Educate the youth, each in his way; even when he ages, it will not leave him.” From this we learn that education should be an enduring process. Our lessons should be taught in such a manner that our children and our students (and we ourselves) remember them. What, then, defines an enduring lesson?
There is no point in trying to make our children/students believe we, their educators, are perfect or infallible. We err, and our children too will err. On the contrary, by sharing with them some of our mistakes (obviously those mistakes that are appropriate to discuss with them), and explaining to them how we went about correcting them, we endow them with a long-lasting, true-to-life lesson.