Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Jewish Humility 101 = Learning from Non-Jews

Parshat Yitro

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One wonders why Yisro merited to have a portion of the Torah written essentially in his name (we are referring to what Yisro taught Moshe, not that a parsha is named for him). It’s true that to see how he recommended the judge hierarchy be established could be attributed as an honor to Moshe, and that Yisro’s reward is that he was honored by God, but it is also true that God could have honored him in a different way, without making it seem as if the nation of God were missing the ability to know how to make a multi tiered court system, until the priest of Midian showed them how to do it!

It seems that the reason is for God to show the Israelites of that generation, and of every generation, that there are intellectual giants among the nations of the world. Go out and learn from Yisro’s wisdom and advice! See the caliber of people he recommended serve as judges. There are people in the nations who can discern and share deep teachings.

The point in all this is to emphasize that Israel was not chosen by God on account of any superior intellect. The proof is Yisro! God chose Israel as a kindness and out of love for the forefathers.

This works particularly well as a message for those who assume that Yisro showed up before the giving of the Torah. This way it serves as a reminder to us that even though there are wiser people among the nations, God still selected us to be the recipients of the Torah. This is a reason for us to be grateful and praiseworthy of the Almighty, who chose us out of His kindness (for our burden to bear).

With only slight adjustments for clarification and to place in context, all of what you have read until this paragraph has been a translation of the words of Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar (Or HaChaim HaKadosh) on Shmot 18:21. These comments are a very important reminder to the Jewish people to have tremendous doses of humility, and to never think we are better than anyone else. The election and selection of the Jewish people came about for two or three reasons: firstly, God loved our forefathers; second, God was kind to our people; and third, while all of humanity are God’s children, He viewed Israel as His firstborn (Shmot 4:22).

More than anything, this election put a burden on the Israelites and subsequently the Jewish people, to be held to a higher standard in morals, ethics, business, war, and to be the scapegoat of humanity for thousands of years (this last one was not the intent, but that is how things turned out).

Or HaChaim’s reminder is that the Jewish people are people like everyone else. The only thing that makes us different is that we were chosen to receive the Torah, which means that our knowledge of Torah, our understanding of Torah, our wealth of Torah and breadth in Torah, is more than everyone else’s.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us being grateful for our lot and portion, while acknowledging that the Jewish people are a cog in the wheel of humanity and human history. There is no question that our place has been significant. It is surely to the credit of our people, stemming more from the origins of Torah study, that we always valued education, and that we emphasized the need to read and write, and that it put many of us to advantages that others before modernity did not always have available to them.

But our first lesson was, there is much to be learned from others as well. If we could only take from the good the nations have to teach, we will be humbled, as we grow from the experience.

And who knows? Maybe such a mutual respect will give us the opportunity to teach others as well! If we play our cards right, our humility may be able to bring more people under the wings of the Divine.

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