> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > The Guiding Light

Goodness Versus Intelligence

Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

This week's Torah portion begins with the account of Moshe's father-in-law, Yitro, coming to the Jewish people and how he suggested a new system of judgment which was approved by God. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh[1] wonders why this particular story is given such prominence right before the Giving of the Torah, which is also detailed in the parsha. In particular, he notes that it seems to imply a lack of wisdom on the part of the Jewish people that the non-Jewish Yitro was the one to initiate this whole system of judgment.

He answers that God wanted to demonstrate just before the Giving of the Torah that wisdom and understanding is not restricted to the Jewish people; the non-Jewish nations also have wisdom and insight. Why is this such an important lesson? Because one may be tempted to think that the reason the Jewish people were chosen to receive the Torah was because of our great wisdom and intellect, and that we are wiser than all the other nations. Accordingly, the Torah emphasizes that a non-Jew thought of a very wise idea that was accepted by the Jewish people.

Why then were we chosen? Because of Divine kindness and God's love for the Forefathers.

Rabbeinu Bechaye makes a similar point:[2] He observes that when the Torah talks about the greatness of the famous Jewish figures such as the Patriarchs, Moshe and King David, it never comments on how smart they were. Instead, they are praised for their exalted character traits: Avraham is praised for his kindness, Yaakov for being an ish tam (a pure man), and Moshe for being exceptionally modest.

This is an important lesson, given the fact that there often seems to be considerable emphasis on the natural intelligence of Jews. It is true that even in secular areas, Jews excel, perhaps more than any other group. The proportion of Jewish Nobel Prize winners is approximately one hundred times greater than their proportion in the world population. Yet, the Ohr HaChaim and Rabbeinu Bechaye teach us that this our natural intelligence is of no significance in terms of our unique role as the Chosen People and a Light to the Nations.

A related point is that intelligence in and of itself is not a value, and it has no direct correlation with moral greatness. Indeed, history demonstrates that some of the most evil people were highly educated and intelligent. For example, many of the leading Nazis were highly intellectual Professors. Their high IQ's did not necessitate any greatness in morality - indeed it may well be that their intelligence made it easier for them to 'intellectually justify' their warped outlook.

One may argue that surely intelligence is very helpful in one of the most important aspects of Divine service - learning Torah. It is certainly true that intelligence can be a great benefit to learning, but only if it is combined with hard work and siyata dishmaya - Heavenly help. Rabbi Shlomo-Zalman Auerbach once noted that the Jewish people did not derive much 'nachas' (joy) from their natural geniuses, meaning that many geniuses did not grow up to become great Torah scholars. Indeed, in one sense, great natural intellect can be an impediment, in that if, as a child, one finds learning very easy, he may well become accustomed to not having to work hard to understand his learning. However, at some point, even a highly intelligent person will not be able to succeed in learning without putting in great effort. Yet by this time, the person may be so used to not having to work, that he will not be able to adapt and will give up more easily than a less gifted person who is used to having to work hard.

In addition, when the Sages[3] tell us the key to understanding Torah, they say nothing about intellect. Rather they focus on hard work -telling us that if a person says that he worked hard and succeeded we believe him, but if he says that he worked hard and did not succeed, we do not believe him. Likewise, if he says that he did not work hard and succeeded, we do not believe him. Thus, toil is the key to success, not natural talent. There are a number of stories about great Torah Scholars who were not outstanding students in their youth, but a combination of extremely hard work, and prayer for siyata dishmaya, ensured that their minds were opened up to the wonders of Torah.

The Ohr HaChaim teaches us that intelligence is not something unique to the Jewish people, and that it is not the reason that God chose us - rather, the greatness of the Patriarchs, their character traits and pure faith was what mattered - our role is to focus on these areas, and deemphasize the importance of intelligence in success.


1. Shemot, 18:21: Veraiti...
2. Cited by Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
3. Megillah, 6b.

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