This past week I was sitting with a friend discussing one of our favorite topics: our kids. He told me that his daughter decided on pursuing a law degree. Ideally, she wanted to become a criminal defense attorney, However there was something dissuading her from criminal law— she was concerned about being in a position that her client’s life and future depended on her performance. He explained that she was therefore looking at specializing in other areas of law where her success or failures will not jeopardize her client’s freedom, family, or life. Her first passion is in criminal defense, but it may carry too much stress and pressure.
As the discussion was unfolding, I was reminded of an insightful story told about Rav Yisroel Meir Kagan, the great “Chofetz Chaim.” He once approached a student and suggested that he apply for a rabbinic post in a far-flung town. The young scholar politely declined, explaining to the Chofetz Chaim, “I am not comfortable being the primary rabbi of a city or community. Questions come up and halachic (legal) decisions need to be rendered, and I am scared to have that responsibility. What if I make a mistake?” The Chofetz Chaim smiled and said, “So, who should take the position, a candidate who is not scared of that responsibility? Perhaps the greatest aspect of your personality is that despite your extensive training and proven Torah prowess you are still humble enough to shy away from this responsibility.”
I believe that in this exchange the Chofetz Chaim explaining a lesson taught in “Pirkei Avot/ Ethics Of The Fathers” (4:7) where we are taught that a rabbi who is overconfident and quick in his halachic decisions is “a fool, wicked, and of haughty spirit.” Why? Rambam explains that offering a decision without fear of the consequences of making a mistake is displaying an overall lack of respect for Torah and G-d. Now, the Tamud is not teaching us to stay away from all decisions; the system of Torah study and Torah law requires constant decisive thinking. Rather, we are being taught that a healthy attitude of self awareness, humility, and respect for the gravity of our decisions is vital: there is great value in being patient, introspective, and self critical.
Should She Take That Job As A Defense Attorney?
Obviously, that question was not going to be answered in that office conversation nor in this blog, but I hope that this story and Torah thought can give us a fresh perspective on how to approach the issue. There are many clients out there who need a lawyer who cares so much about the result that they are almost afraid to take the case. Sometimes the very fear of making a mistake and causing unnecessary suffering is the greatest asset that we can have to help others.