Moshe requests that G-d appoint a leader who will replace him:
“Let the Lord, the G-d of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
(Numbers 27, 16-17)
Moshe, in turning to G-d, uses the name “the G-d of spirits of all flesh.” Rashi quotes the midrash about this:
He said to him, “Master of the universe, the character of each person is revealed to you, and no two are alike. Appoint over them a leader who will tolerate each person according to his individual character.”
Moses expresses his request that the leader about to replace him be capable of accepting the differences among people in opinions and desires, and lead each of them in accordance with his character. Moses explains this request by explaining that G-d created each person to be different from another, and that He also knows the depths of each person’s soul since He is the “G-d of spirits of all flesh.”
The literature of the Mishna and the Talmud are known for being chock full of disagreements and a plurality of opinions. In the 1st century BCE, two of Judaism’s greatest sages lived in the Land of Israel: Hillel and Shammai. After their deaths, their students began a series of halachic (Jewish legal) and exegetic disputes, and separated into two factions: Beit Hillel (the House of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the House of Shammai). In the Mishna, in the Ethics of the Fathers, such disputes are described as “for the sake of heaven” and are “destined to endure” (Fathers 5, 17). For someone looking at it from the side, it might be hard to accept the term “dispute” in relation to G-d’s Torah. Since there can only be one Divine truth, disputing G-d’s will undermines faith in the sages’ interpretation of the Torah. If they can’t reach an agreement regarding G-d’s will, how can we trust what they have to say?!
We find specific reference to this issue in the “Tosefta,” an ancient compilation of Jewish oral law and articles. It discusses the fact that there were many arguments between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, some of which had very practical implications, such as those pertaining to marriage, purity and impurity (such as Jewish laws on the impurity of the dead that were applicable when the Temple stood). But despite their disagreements, these factions lived peacefully alongside one another. They would marry partners from the other faction and deal with matters necessitating purity alongside one another without hesitation. The article ends with the following words:
To fulfill what it says, “Man’s every way is straight in his own eyes, but the Lord counts the hearts.” (Proverbs 21, 2)
(Tosefta Yevamot 1, 3)
Meaning: Both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were trying to figure out the Lord’s will, and despite reaching different conclusions, each side’s path was considered pure and true in its own right. How can that be? G-d, who gave us the Torah, is also “the G-d of spirits of all flesh.” He is the one who created each person with a different appearance, a different character, a different perspective and different opinions. This understanding is what allows us to accept the complexity of varying opinions and grasp that several opinions can together be the will of G-d, so long as they stem from a complete obligation to the Torah, its commandments, and Jewish tradition.
This outlook not only allows us to make peace with disputes in Torah commentary and interpretation, but it also allows us to make peace with different opinions, different needs, and the different world views of those around us, just as we make peace with the fact that different people have different appearances. These disputes do not legitimize the contortion or negation of any commandments but do remind us that
“These and these are the words of the living G-d”