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Yitro - The Torah View of Intelligence

Intelligence in and of itself is not a value, and it has no direct correlation with moral greatness. History demonstrates that some of the most evil people were highly educated and intelligent

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Parshat Yitro is known as the Parsha of Mattan Torah (Receiving of the Torah), yet it begins with the account of Yitro coming to the Jewish people and how he suggested a new system of Judgment which was approved by HaShem. 

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh[1] wonders why this particular story is given such prominence right before Mattan Torah.  In particular, he notes that it seems to imply a lack of wisdom on the part of the Jewish people, to the extent that the non-Jewish Yitro was the one to initiate this whole system of judgment. 

He answers that Hashem wanted to demonstrate just before Mattan Torah that wisdom and understanding is not restricted to the Jewish people, rather 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 HaShem’s love for the Avos. 

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 Forefathers, Moshe Rabbeinu and David HaMelech, 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, 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, ym”s were 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.

Rav Elchanan Wasserman zt”l makes another point that debunks the idea of the importance of intelligence in areas that really matter.  He notes that once a girl turns 12 and a boy reaches 13, the Torah obligates them in all the Mitzvos, including the Mitzva of Emunah – belief in the existence of G-d. 

Rav Elchanan wonders how the Torah can obligate a child in this area, when some of the greatest minds in history debated at length the question of the existence of G-d.  He answers that, in truth, it is a very simple matter to recognize that the world was created by G-d, but the biases of the philosophers clouded their intellectual honesty and made a simple matter seem highly complicated.

One may argue that surely intelligence is very helpful in one of the most important aspects of avodat HaShem – learning Torah.  It is certainly true that intelligence can be a great benefit to learning, but only if it is combined with ameilut – toiling - and siyata diShmaya – Heavenly help. 

Rav Shlomo-Zalman Auerbach zt”l once noted that the Jewish people did not derive much nachas from their natural geniuses, meaning that many geniuses did not grow up to become great Talmidei Chachamim. 

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 Our Sages[3] tell us the key to understanding Torah, they say nothing about intellect, rather they focus on hard work – they tell 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 Gedolim (Great Torah Sages) who were not outstanding students in their youth, but a combination of extremely hard work, and tefillah 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 HaShem chose us – rather, the greatness of the Forefathers in their middot and Emunah was what mattered – our role is to focus on these areas, and deemphasize the importance of intelligence in success.

Notes and Sources
[1] Shemos, 18: 21, Veraisi…
[2] Cited by Rav Yissachar Frand, shlit’a.
[3] Megillah, 6b.