Blinded by the Torah

Learning is not just about intellect; it is about attitude. The willingness to listen to everyone with an open mind is even more important than mere brilliance.
February 10, 2023
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Asking questions can save lives. In the late 1990s, Korean Air had an atrocious safety record: its accident rate was 17 times those of similar carriers such as United Airlines. What was it that caused so many crashes? Investigators found that the pilots, the planes, and the mechanics all met or exceeded international standards; there were no obvious deficiencies. Instead, the real problem was in airline culture.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, explains that, at that time, Korean Air had a “high power distance culture;” in organizations like this, subordinates must be deferential, and will often be excluded from decision-making. What that meant is that the captain on each plane reigned supreme, and the first officers were uncomfortable with even questioning them. At times, a captain might be flying into a direct hazard, yet the first officer would stay silent, accepting the captain’s choice.

The perils of power distance are not unique to Korean Air; even relatively egalitarian cultures are affected by it. Airlines generally split the flying time between the captain, and his assistant, the first officer. Even though the captain always has far more experience and training than the first officer, crashes were far more likely to happen if the captain was flying the plane. Gladwell explains that this is because the captain is very comfortable bluntly correcting the first officer, while the first officer would generally mitigate their remarks, speaking tactfully and indirectly. Captains rarely got the feedback they needed in a direct way, and that resulted in crashes.

In their book Start-Up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer describe a very different type of culture as being key to Israel’s high-tech success. Low-level employees can pose questions to those in charge, and be listened to; and before decisions are made, there are wide-ranging debates about what is to be done. Senor and Singer trace this back to Israel’s unique military culture; but that too has Jewish roots. Major General Aharon Zeevi-Farkash explained to them that the IDF’s antihierarchical structure goes back to the Talmud, which cherishes objections and arguments.

Learning is not just about intellect; it is about attitude. The willingness to listen to everyone with an open mind is even more important than mere brilliance. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (4:1) explains: Ben Zoma said: who is wise? one who learns from every person. One must never be blinded by rank or degrees; a good idea can come from anywhere.

Ben Zoma’s lesson is a practical one, and Gladwell’s entire article is essentially a commentary on this Mishnah. But it is also a spiritual lesson, one which is the foundation of the Torah.

The highlight of our Torah reading is the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Moses alone approaches God, and he is entrusted with conveying revelation to the people. He is an awe-inspiring, commanding authority; later, people will be afraid to approach him. Yet in the passage just before this, we see a very different side to Moses.

Jethro, the Priest of Midian and the father-in-law of Moses, comes to visit. He sees long lines of people waiting on his son-in-law, who is busy day and night sitting in judgment and responding to queries. Jethro does not like what he sees. He tells Moses: “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” (Exodus 18:18-19.) Instead, Jethro offers practical advice to Moses: he should set up a judicial system, with ascending tiers of judges who will handle the cases and any appeals. By delegating much of the work to them, Mose will be able to complete his own tasks.

Jethro offers very good advice; but his idea is pretty obvious. Don Isaac Abrabanel wonders why Moses couldn’t figure this out by himself; after all, “even the simplest person would understand that it is foolish for one man to judge from early morning to late evening..” In other words, how is it possible that this brilliant prophet couldn’t come up on his own with an obvious solution like delegating?

There are several answers given to this question. Ralbag and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argue that Moses lacked the ability to deal with practicalities; people like Moses, who are profoundly spiritual and brilliant, very often lose connection to reality. Abrabanel, uncomfortable with an approach like this that diminishes Moses’ stature, argues that Moses had planned on eventually implementing such a system himself, but was waiting until after the Torah was given. Once that would occur, others could be trusted to oversee the courts, because there would be uniform rules and regulations for the judges to follow. In other words, Abrabanel argues that Jethro is telling Moses something he already knew. This answer is problematic; it renders Jethro’s advice as being meaningless, and it becomes unclear why this narrative was included in the Torah.

This question is so troubling, that the Sifrei says it was divine intervention. God wanted “to give greatness to Jethro” who, by offering this advice, would be featured prominently in this section of the Torah; and so, Moses had to have a temporary lapse of judgment, to leave room for his father-in-law to shine.

But I think the answer to this question is far simpler: sometimes even the greatest leader, even the most experienced pilot, can miss the obvious. And at the same time, even an outsider like Jethro can offer useful advice to the greatest prophet of Israel. There is no hierarchy in the pursuit of wisdom; as Maimonides writes, “accept the truth from whoever says it.”

As I noted, the section about Jethro’s advice to Moses is followed immediately by the revelation of the Ten Commandments. It would seem that the intent of this connection is clear; one must know how to learn properly before they can learn Torah. The section of Jethro’s advice is, in a spiritual sense, the very beginning of the rabbinic tradition, which is filled with questions and debates, with young rabbis debating their own teachers, and unlikely characters, such as the maidservant of Rabbi Judah, teaching lessons to great rabbis.

But the ability to learn from every person is not merely about building a culture of learning. It goes to the core of how we should see the world.

Close-mindedness is a vice that frequently afflicts the brilliant; they are unable to imagine that anyone else can teach them anything. The elitist impulse can blind us to the greatness of others. And ultimately, this can devolve into a lack of respect. The most important lesson of this section is not just that Moses listens, but also that Jethro has a lot more to teach us than we imagine.

Elitism can corrode our character; we must keep our minds and hearts open in every relationship. There is greatness among those with little learning, and know no Torah.

In the Midrash, (Leviticus Rabbah 9:3,) a story is told about Rav Yannai, who invites a guest to his house; Rav Yannai can tell that the man has a spiritual demeanor, so he mistakes him for a fellow Rabbi. During the meal it becomes clear that man is completely ignorant, and cannot even say a blessing. Rav Yannai is so annoyed by this, he insults the man, saying that “a dog has eaten Yannai’s bread.” The man upbraids Rav Yannai, and in further conversation, Rav Yannai learns that his initial impression was correct: this was a man with a refined sense of ethics, who never gossiped and spent his time making peace between those who had disputes. This man was a spiritual giant.

Rav Yannai then embraces a very different view. He says that derech eretz, acting with goodness and integrity, is a spiritual path equal to the Torah; not only that, but also derech eretz kadmah l’Torah, the path of derech eretz existed generations before the Torah was given.

This lesson is on full display in this Torah reading. Jethro is a foreigner and a neophyte; but every time he appears in the text, Jethro embodies the lesson of derech eretz kadmah l’Torah. Here, he even offers advice grounded in derech eretz, that the Jews waiting in line deserve respect, and that his son-in-law needs some respite.

Rav Yannai is at first blinded by his own Torah knowledge from appreciating the greatness of others. But then he learns that there is spiritual greatness among those who are ignorant. There are many quiet heroes who follow in Jethro’s footsteps, who even though they have not learned much, make sure that there is peace and goodness in this world.

They must be our heroes too.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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