1.11 Avtalyon taught:
Sages, be careful of what you say lest you be exiled by the authorities. You may be exiled to a center of heretical sects, and your students (who will follow you there) may imbibe their teaching and become apostates. You will thus be responsible for the desecration of God’s name.
This teaching, more than any other before, has required me to look at the footnotes and the dictionary. In two places here, the meaning is unclear, or if clear, not translated verbatim (though for why not, I’m not sure). The first is the mention of heretical sects, which in Hebrew plays on the common metaphor of the Torah being mayim, water. The second is the mention of becoming apostates (apostasy is a total desertion from one’s religion or principles) literally meaning “they shall die.” These two notes in tandem, we can make sense of how one can such “imbibe” their teachings and die because of it.
But I’ll get back to that later.
I’d like to start with something else that I can think of, and once again, I’m not sure if I’m thinking as factually as I think I am. See, in the time of this teaching’s composition, persecution and all that were really all that—so to not be careful with what you said really could have gotten you exiled. In today’s world, at least in America, you can’t really be exiled for saying anything—at least not exiled from your country. But each of us are in contact with so many smaller factions from which we easily could be exiled on account of what we say: from school, from work, from synagogues and other places of worship. From communities and shopping centers and the presence of certain people if we do certain unspeakable things.
Maybe we don’t use the word “exiled,” but it’s exile nonetheless.
Let’s consider a different kind of exile. Speaking as a Jew, on behalf of most Jews, we’re familiar with the feeling of exile: For as much as our home is here, wherever here may be, so long as it’s outside Israel, there’s bound to be some feeling of not truly being “home.” Spiritual exile is not only ours, however; we could look at any number of occasions when we move or change or see the world in a new way in which, thinking too deeply, we feel exiled from all we’ve known. No one needs to see this exile but ourselves to know it’s true and to suffer because of it (those times when such “exiling” from our past is both beneficial and wanted withstanding).
Bringing these two concepts together, we can then relate them in a tangible way. Actions speak louder than words, we’re told (and often it’s true), so if for a second we see actions and words as one thing, what we do can easily exile us from where we want and where we need to be. Of course, seeing as how humans are innately pack animals, forming cliques and groups and families to feud between, we can see—each as leaders to those around us—how straying ourselves from the path we intend to follow, we are leading others astray with us.
The text does not say “Be careful of what you say lest you be exiled and thus be responsible for the desecration of God’s name.” It’s not that simple. We can say and do as we please (and in today’s world with Facebook and Twitter, too many say and do more than they should), but saying and doing alone, even if we end up in exile, does not necessarily desecrate the Lord’s name. It makes me think a little bit of free will, but more importantly in this case, free speech.
It’s in our Constitution that we’re entitled to say what we wish (and although there’s plenty of restrictions upon this, I’ll ignore those for the moment) and in all likelihood, we usually do say exactly what we wish to say (whether it’s what we mean to say is usually the questionable part). But because we are entitled to such free speech, because self-expression is inherently a right endowed to everyone, we are typically free of the consequences of doing this (again I’m ignoring all those exceptions). This teaching exemplifies this principle: We can say as we wish, and hopefully as we mean, but simply by doing so—no matter the consequences—we have given no offense to the name of the Lord.
The text says: “Your students (who will follow you there) may imbibe their teachings [of the heretical sects] and they will die. You will thus be responsible for the desecration of God’s name.”
It’s not doing as we please that desecrates God’s name, not directly; it’s leading others into ill fortune that does it. When we become exiled, we can work to return, of our own will, of our own doing; but when we pull others along with us, they do not have the same cushion for recovery. We have misinformed; we have mislead; we have given poison and watched our followers drink it and die.
This teaching, to me, is not about tactful speaking, although that, too, is a lesson worth learning, but the true worth here is about leadership. When I attended the Student Leadership Institute this past June, a recurring theme from our speakers was that leaders lead with integrity, character, and moral strength. Just the same, we can lead without all of these things—but when we do, we abuse our leadership, we abuse our followers, and we abuse the name of God, from whom we’ve been given the ability and opportunity to lead others.
Action shy of consequence is harmless, leadership just the same. Action shy of consideration of what may follow, however, is foolish; and leadership of the same is sinful.