Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Humble Wisdom

My Devar Torah at my daughter's Bas Mitzvah today, without the personal stuff:

There is a surprising commandment in last week's Torah portion. After we are told to remove the native inhabitants of the land of Israel (who refuse to accept a peace treaty) and destroy their idolatry, the Torah tells us (Deut. 12:30):

השמר לך פן-תנקש אחריהם אחרי השמדם מפניך ופן-תדרש לאלהיהם לאמר איכה יעבדו הגוים האלה את-אלהיהם ואעשה-כן גם-אני.
Take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, "How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same."
The Ramban (as opposed to Rashi) explains that this means that we are not to adopt idolatrous practices into our worship of God. The question remains, why is there a need for such a command? After destroying communities of idolaters and supplanting them in their land, why would any Jewish conqueror consider adopting the idolatrous practices of their defeated enemies?

Click here to read moreI think that the answer is that generally the Torah expects us to look at other cultures -- their science, philosophy, literature, etc. -- and see what truths there are that can be extracted and appreciated from a Jewish perspective. All people have insight into the human condition and sometimes we can gain understanding from elsewhere that we otherwise would not have attained had we refrained from exploring other venues. This is not to imply that the Torah is lacking insight into the human condition. Rather, we are all different and we all learn things differently. Some people might gain further insight from a poem that others might see it from a story. That is where looking at other cultures from a Torah perspective and appreciating their insights can help us grow in our own understanding. It is for this reason that a conquering people would examine the culture of the nations they vanquished.

However, the Torah tells us, this has to stop at religion. There is no room or desire for us to expand our religious practices based on other religions regardless of how brilliant their ideas may be. Even if a nation had discovered a creative architecture for their temples of idolatry in which the acoustics are designed perfectly, we may not copy it. When it comes to religion we simply do not incorporate insights from other religions.

The idea behind this is classically stated by Ben Zoma in the Mishnah in Avos (4:1):
Ben Zoma said: Who is wise (חכם)? He who learns from all men, as it is written (Psalm 119:99) "I have gained understanding from all my teachers."

Who is mighty (גבור)? He who subdues his passions, as it is written (Proverbs 16:32) "One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city."

Who is rich (עשיר)? He who rejoices in his portion, as it is written (Psalm 128:2) "You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you." "You shall be" refers to this world; and "it shall be well with you" refers to the world to come.
The list of three in this Mishnah is quite puzzling. It appears in two other places in Torah literature. The Gemara in Nedarim (38a) lists four requirements for prophecy: גבור, חכם, עשיר, ועניו (mighty, wise, rich and humble). And Yirmiyahu lists three things that are not praiseworthy (Jer. 9:22): "Let not the wise man (חכם) glory in his wisdom, Let not the mighty man (הגבור) glory in his might, Nor let the rich man (עשיר) glory in his riches."

According to Yirmiyahu, wisdom, might and wealth are not things about which a person should be praised. If so, why does the Gemara in Nedarim say that they are a prerequisite for prophecy? The answer lies in a commandment that can be deduced from next week's Torah portion. The Torah describes a Jewish king and the special laws that apply to him. One is that he must carry a Torah scroll with him wherever he goes so that "his heart may not be lifted above his brethren" (Deut. 17:20). The Ramban points out that there is an implicit obligation here not to become haughty, i.e. to be humble, which seems to apply not only to the king but to all Jews. This is an implied command rather than one that is explicit. In R. Moshe of Coucy's introduction to his Sefer Mitzvos Gadol (Semag), he writes that he had initially omitted from his list of the 613 commandments a prohibition against being haughty, but when he had a dream in which he was chastised about this omission he revised his work and added in this prohibition (no. 64). Humility, it seems, is a fundamental requirement of a religious personality that did not even need direct mentioning in the Torah.

R. Chaim Volozhiner (Ruach Chaim 4:1) explains that wisdom, might and wealth on their own are not praiseworthy and are not the real prerequisites for prophecy. What is really needed is that last on the list in Nedarim -- humility. However, someone who has little about which to be proud cannot really be said to have mastered the trait of humility. Therefore, only someone who is already wise but is still humble enough to learn from all others, and already mighty but humble enough to look inwards, and rich but humble enough to recognize that it is all a gift and be satisfied with what God has given him rather than desire more, only such a person can be called truly humble.

Therefore, when Ben Zoma says in Avos that someone is wise if he learns from everyone, he means that when someone is already wise on his own (or through Torah) and still learns from all other people, he is both truly wise and humble.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More