Recognizing Truth is a Great Virtue
It is written, “Moses inquired insistently about the he-goat of the sin-offering, for behold, it had been burned! And he was wrathful with Elazar and Ithamar. … Moses heard and he approved” (Leviticus 10:16,20).
Concerning “he approved,” the Sages have said that instead of claiming that he did not hear what the law was, Moses was not ashamed to say that he had indeed heard, but had forgotten it (Zebachim 101b). This statement is extremely surprising. On one hand, it never would have entered our minds to suspect Moses our teacher of lying and imagining that he could have denied hearing that which he had in fact heard. On the other hand, how is it that Moses, whom G-d delegated to teach the entire Torah to the Children of Israel, could have forgotten a Halachah? Yet if we say that G-d had decided to make him forget it, how should we understand this decision, insofar as it risked being a stumbling block for the Children of Israel? The risk lay in the possibility of them telling themselves that if Moses had forgot this particular point, he could have also forgotten others, to the extent that they would no longer have any confidence in him, which would have created controversies.
To explain this, let us recall that the Torah is acquired through 48 qualities (Perkei Avoth 6:5), the most difficult of which to attain is humility. This is particularly difficult for the great Rabbanim, for they generally tend to try and preserve their personal honor by hurrying to answer questions asked of them. Even those who are above the fear of losing their credibility in public worry about the honor of the Torah, for if they are recognized as having erred and people no longer listen to them (lest they commit another mistake), this would constitute a desecration of the Divine Name.
This is why the Torah testifies here that the greatest compliment to give someone is to say that he does not fear recognizing the truth. On the contrary, when someone says, “I’ve heard and I’ve forgotten,” it is this that constitutes true honor of Torah. Moses our teacher owed his intellectual honesty to his perfection in humility (see Numbers 12:3). His forgetfulness was destined to teach his sons and future teachers that in no case should we distance ourselves from the truth, and that greatness consists in recognizing this. That is why G-d did not help Moses in remembering.
There is a teaching which states that on three occasions Moses became angry and erred (Sifri Matot 157). It seems, therefore, that his error was only provoked by anger, which demonstrates to all generations that when a person loses his temper, even the greatest are deprived of G-d’s help. Before growing impatient, we must therefore carefully weigh whether such a reaction is truly necessary, or whether it is really the advice of the evil inclination, which tries to distance us from the knowledge of Torah. It is possible that Moses’ punishment was presented in the form of forgetting the Halachah (the law) precisely because anger represents a small defect in humility, one of the 48 qualities by which the Torah is acquired.
Yet it is precisely this that shows us his greatness, for he recognized that he had forgotten the Halachah because of his fit of anger, to the extent that G-d didn’t help him to remember. His humility pushed him to recognize his error in public as soon as he noticed it, and he even had it proclaimed in the camp that he had erred (Vayikra Rabba 13:1), thus putting truth before everything.
From this we should draw the lesson that the leader of the generation shouldn’t fear that, if he admits having made a mistake, people will think that this can happen to him again and so they will not trust his decisions. If everyone concludes that he has the necessary stature to value truth above his own honor, then they will have even more confidence in his Torah, for the Torah is called Truth (Tikkunei Zohar 50), as it is written, “Purchase the truth, do not sell it” (Proverbs 23:23). Moreover, whoever is sincere recognizes the truth immediately.
We know that statements which are true and well-founded enter the heart of the one who hears them, as it is written in the Gemara, “Whoever fears Heaven, his words are heard” (Berachot 6b). This is why, when the Torah was given, it is stated, “The entire people saw the thunder [Hebrew: voices]” (Exodus 20:16). They saw what we hear, which is impossible under other circumstances (Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai ibid.), for the words of the Living G-d, having emanated directly from the mouth of the G-d of Truth, entered into the hearts of those who heard them, exactly as if they had seen them with their very eyes. This signifies a level of comprehension more profound than the simple act of hearing, and this is the same imagery as that of the letters of the Torah escaping into the air (Avodah Zarah 18a). The same thing applies to the righteous person who demonstrates his sincerity.
Nevertheless, It remains for us to understand how Moses, who had learned the entire Torah from the mouth of G-d on Mount Sinai (Eruvin 54b), managed to get angry, which then led him to forget the Halachah. In fact, Aaron had acted correctly and Moses still remembered the Halachah; it was only afterwards that he became angry, although we still don’t understand why. In addition, when Elazar came to announce to the members of the army, “This is the decree of the Torah which the L-RD commanded” (Numbers 31:21), Moses again became angry (see Sifri ibid. 48). Why? He had, after all, known from his previous experience that this type of behavior puts him at risk of sinning, and furthermore this was indeed what happened!
Yet as we know, everything is alluded to in the Torah (Taanith 9a), hence Moses’ forgetfulness is also included so as to teach us that if even the great of the generation become angry, they will end up committing an error in Halachah, for the Torah is not in Heaven (Bava Metzia 59b), and men are dealt with exactly as they themselves behave (Megillah 12b). The mitzvah that was related to Aaron (“You shall not drink wine or strong drink” – Leviticus 10:9) had already been given to Moses before on Mount Sinai, but in his great humility (which we also find alluded to by the small letter aleph of the word vayikra, as if he were saying, “Who am I that G-d should call me?”) he did not remind him of it. And yet this same humility did not prevent him from suffering because his brother Aaron entered into the Holy of Holies. Regretting this fit of anger, he wanted that this parsha be told to Aaron directly by the Eternal, since it was he who was to be careful when entering into the Holy of Holies.
The same applies for Moses’ anger towards Elazar and the people in the army. His anger was definitely not based on the fact that it was Elazar who spoke to the army and not him, for it was certainly a great joy for Moses that Elazar, the son of Aaron, taught them the Halachah. However Moses became angry at that moment because he thought that the Halachah was different. His greatness consisted of recognizing that his anger had led him in error.
In reality, we have no idea what the meaning of Moses’ anger was, for it was certainly motivated by the love of Heaven, not by jealously or hatred. In fact the Torah testifies that he was the most humble man on earth (Numbers 12:3), and humility and anger do not go together. In reality, this happened to him so that all the generations could draw the lesson that even the greatest of men, if they become angry, are punished by forgetting Halachah. Nevertheless, if they don’t fear acknowledging the truth, this sin becomes rectified, and not only do they find their honor once again, but they also become greater in G-d’s eyes and in the eyes of the people. This was the greatness of Moses, and it evokes for us the passage in the Gemara that states, “Happy is the generation in which the great listen to the lesser” (Rosh Hashanah 25b). For when the great recognize the truth, they in turn are heard. This is what the honor of Torah consists of.