How should you react when you see someone respectable doing something wrong?

When an illustrious Rav of an esteemed community in Israel passed away, a search committee was established to find a replacement. Top on the list of qualifications was that he be a genuine Torah scholar. They heard about an outstanding Talmid Chacham who had moved to their community. He was found to be not only a great scholar but a most talented orator as well. He was hired. He was just what they were looking for, or even better; so they thought.

One afternoon, one of the congregants noticed that the Rav came early before Minchah. Rather than entering the Shul, the Rav went behind the building. He dug a hole in the corner of the garden, uttered a few words, threw in a small seed, and covered the hole with dirt.

The congregant was stunned. He could have come to terms with what seemed to be strange behavior. However, there was a major problem. It was during the Shemitah year. It is absolutely forbidden to plant the entire year.

The congregant kept an eye out and saw that this was almost a daily occurrence. Others noticed this as well. Murmurings began amongst the congregants. Some said he obviously does not know Halachah, Jewish law. Some said he must be planting for a Mitzvah i.e. to have besamim for Havdalah, erroneously thinking that for a Mitzvah, planting is permitted. Different theories were offered. The scandalous behavior became the talk of the town.

The Rav detected that something was wrong. The attitude towards him had changed. As he prepared to address the kehilah on Shabbos, he saw scornful glances in his direction. Apparently they suddenly didn’t want him there. He had no idea what caused this dissatisfaction and disdain. He said, “Rabosai, my esteemed congregants, I would like to know if you have any issue whatsoever with me? Have you heard some disparaging things about me?”

The Gabai stood up and spoke directly and clearly. He brought up the issue of the Rav planting during Shemitah. “It never entered our minds that an outstanding Talmid Chacham would openly violate the ‘resting’ of the land,[1] in the yard of the House of our G-d!”

The Rav responded: “Rabosai, as you know I am a mohel. Almost each day I am privileged to bring a Jewish child into the covenant of Avraham our forefather. I am of Tunisian descent. Our custom is to bury the orlah, foreskin from a Bris, in the yard of a Shul. Why there? Through that action we hope that the child will be drawn to Torah and fear of Hashem. What I have been doing is the Minhag of my fathers. Before burying the orlah I offer a prayer that the child will be planted in the House of Hashem all the days of his life and that he have love of Torah and fear of Heaven.

The audience was stunned. They looked at each other with distress and shame. They realized that they suspected their Rav of an open violation of Torah law, while he was preserving a holy Minhag.

Is it permitted to dig a hole in a field during Shemittah? Indeed, working the land, even just digging a hole is forbidden. However, that is only if it is part of a planting process. If someone, for example, digs a hole in the ground in order to place a board there for securing a Succah, it is permitted.[2] Similarly, digging for the purpose of burying the orlah, is permitted. It was wrong for the members of the kehilah to reach their erroneous conclusion. It was wrong that they considered him guilty due to their lack of knowledge and information.

On the other hand, it states, “Vihyisem nekiyim, be clean in the eyes of Hashem and Israel.”[3] “Take crooked speech away from yourself, and put devious lips far away from you.”[4] It would have been worthy for the Rav to have apprised others of what he was doing in order to avert any possible misunderstanding.[5]

What would have been the best way to have handled the dilemma? What is our instinctive reaction to witnessing someone doing something wrong?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Hershel D. Becker

[1] Behar 25:2

[2] Malbim Behar 25:2; Rambam Hilchos Shemitah 1:4, 17

[3] Matos 32:22

[4] Mishlei 4:24

[5] Ve’Haarev Na 4, Behar 301-305