Let’s be unreasonable

This coming Passover we will be celebrating and reliving our freedom from Egyptian bondage and G-d’s revelation at Mt. Sinai which took place exactly three millennia, three centuries and three decades ago.

How did we manage to survive and reach this milestone? What can our past teach us regarding our future?

The following story contains an interesting perspective I would like to share.

The story is told about the great sage Rabbi Yonathan Eibshitz, who at the tender age of three was known for his extraordinary wisdom. When the King of Poland heard about the prodigy he was curious and wanted to see for himself the extent of the boy’s intelligence.

The king sent a message to little Yonathan’s father in which he communicated his desire to test the child. To that effect he requested that the little boy come walking to the palace unassisted, navigating several kilometers of city streets by himself.  

Of course, Yonathan’s father had no choice and the next day he dressed his son in his Shabbos best, blessed him and off he went. After several hours of walking, he reached the palace gates.

“Tell me, young man,” the king said, “how did you manage to find the palace?”

“Quite simple, your majesty,” came the unhesitating reply. “When I reached a crossroads and had a doubt I would ask a passerby for directions.”

“Did it not occur to you that two passersby might have given you contradicting directions? What would you do in the case that one would say go to the right and another would tell you go to the left?”, the king persisted.

The boy thought for a moment and said: “Your majesty, our holy Torah says that when one is confronted with contradictory opinions, one must follow that of the majority. That is what I would do. I would look for a third opinion and follow the majority.”

The king smiled and suddenly his face became serious. He looked at the boy and said in all earnestness: “Young man! Why don’t you listen to your own words? If your Bible says that one must follow the opinion of the majority, why don’t you abandon your religion and accept our beliefs? Are we not the majority?  

All those present applauded in appreciation of their king’s wisdom. When the noise subsided, little Yonathan turned to the king and said:

“Forgive me, your majesty. When I said that I would follow the majority opinion, it is true when I was far from the palace and have doubts regarding where it is. But now that I am in the palace, in the presence of the king himself, even though everyone were to tell me that I am in the wrong place, I would have no reason to pay them any attention.

“I have no doubts with respect to the truth of the Torah. The rule of following the majority opinion is not applicable in this case.”

When our forefather Abraham initiated his path of spreading his faith in one G-d, Creator of the Universe, one might have questioned the wisdom of his convictions which went against those of the whole world at that time. His role as a disrupter was so great that he was called Ivri  (Hebrew). The reason for this was not only because he came from the other side “Me-Eiver” of the Euphrates, but because he was on one side of the philosophical divide and everyone else was on the other. Everyone else was on the side of paganism and conformism, whilst Abraham was on the side of the Monotheism even though it was not “politically correct”.

History has proven Abraham right. Some five hundred years after he started his lonely path, millions of his descendants left Egypt to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai fifty days later, formalizing thus, for all eternity, their special pact with G-d.

Today, 3,330 years after that historic revelation, the majority of the human race (!) subscribes – to one degree or another – to the norms and ethical code revealed on that occasion, as documented in the Torah.

What is the lesson for us today?

Anniversaries are opportunities to celebrate accomplishments as well as to think about and reaffirm for the future the commitments that they represent. This year’s special anniversary of the birth of our nation is an excellent opportunity to reevaluate what it means to be part of the Jewish people.

Being Jewish is a privilege, as well as a responsibility. We are not just another nation; we are unique. In a world that looks to erase differences, it is important to not give in, to recognize them and to value them. No, we are not all the same: we are all different. And it’s not a bad thing, either. Everyone has their unique role; denying one’s special value does an injustice not just to oneself but to the talents one has and to all those that would benefit from the development and application of one’s special talents and resources.

There are those that are not comfortable with belonging to the Chosen People. It sounds so bigoted. But let’s not confuse arrogance with pride. Arrogance means thinking you are superior; pride means believing that what you have is superior. Arrogance leads one to separate himself from those he considers to be inferior; pride causes one to want to share what he has with others.

We Jews are different than all other nations because of the Torah that G-d gave us. This implies a greater responsibility to the rest of society. We have the responsibility to live an exemplary life with more spiritual content that will inspire others as well as to show greater sensitivity to others.

The core value of Western society is Human Rights. “My rights end where yours begin,” is its fundamental rule. “I have the right to do whatever I want to, as long as I don’t violate anyone else rights”. We Jews dance to a different tune, however; the tune that puts the emphasis on personal and communal responsibilities rather than rights.

While I was finishing writing this article, someone sent me the following saying by George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Being Jewish can often appear to be unreasonable, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that much of the progress in the world owes itself to said unreasonableness.

This year’s Seder is a very good opportunity to remember and reaffirm who we are and what we are here for.

1. The story is based on version told by Tuvia Bolton, Chabad.org

2. Rabbi Yonathan Eibshitz, 5450-5524 (1690-1764). In 1750, he was named the Chief Rabbi of the famous Three Communities of Germany (Altona, Hamburg y Wandsbek).

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zi"a, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. Has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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