Some time in the third century, Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba and Rabbi Abbahu — two of the finest sages of their time — happened upon the same small village to speak and to preach on the same day.
Rabbi Abbahu was a consummate politician, well known to the Roman authorities in Caesarea and a frequent and honored guest in that city’s royal precincts. Rabbi Chiyya was a man of modest material means, yet of pious and priestly family origins. At first, each drew impressive crowds of listeners and admirers from among the inhabitants of the village.
As was his way, the erudite Rabbi Chiyya lectured in fine scholarly style on serious matters of Jewish law, moral principles, and pressing contemporary issues. Rabbi Abbahu entertained his audience with amusing stories and entertaining parables and quips. The crowd at Chiyya’s lecture soon dissipated as listeners were drawn to Abbahu’s more titillating presentation.
Chiyya, only human, was disappointed with his lesser following, and after the two sages had finished their own addresses he approached his colleague to discuss the day’s events. Now it was Chiyya who told a parable:
“Once two merchants came to a town to sell their wares. One sold precious stones, truly valuable gems, and other high-end merchandise of true and abiding worth. The other sold shiny baubles and cheap trinkets — the type of goods for which there is always a ready market among less than discriminating buyers. Naturally,” the downcast Chiyya concluded, “the crowd was attracted to the baubles.”
This talmudic passage (BT Sotah 40A) is more than a story about professional competition and envy. It also suggests a familiar aspect of human nature. We tend to be attracted not necessarily to that which is truly most worthwhile and of enduring value and quality but to trinkets — to that which is popular, that which is easily accessible, that which demands little of us, that which is on the surface polished and shiny and seems to have value. The village mob was engaged and entertained by Abbahu. People spent a pleasant afternoon of diversion and amusement. But they missed out on the true leadership, the truly precious insights, the more valuable and more sorely needed guidance and vision offered by Chiyya.
They chose rhetorical trinkets over gems of moral and national leadership.
Rabbi Chiyya was unhappy. He enjoyed an audience and personal popularity, but he was also a great sage of Israel. So he wisely perceived in the villagers’ choice a common human failing, a morally perilous spiritual misstep that threatened to undermine the nation.
The human tendency to follow the crowd to that which appears attractive and shiny upon cursory, superficial examination, but lacks substance and content and abiding value, is a major theme of primary concern in the Torah. Human willingness to reject that which apparently is less accessible in favor of that which is of only seeming value reaches its climax in the debacle of the Golden Calf, where trinkets quite literally are transformed into an idol to displace the unseen God. The theme of this particular expression of human weakness is explored repeatedly in the Torah.
Consider the election of Moses as God’s prophet. Moses doesn’t want the job, and he tries to convince God that he is unfit: “The Israelites would not listen to me. How then should Pharaoh heed me? I am a man of impeded speech.” According to one rabbinic commentator, Yosef Bechor Shor, God responded to Moses by saying, “If I wanted you to speak eloquently, I would make it so. But it is My honor that someone with no rhetorical ability should be My messenger!”
How is God honored by choosing Moses? Yes, a prophetic national leader must be able to communicate effectively, both with his own people and with foreign potentates. (As for Moses’ actual oratorical achievements, just consult the Book of Deuteronomy!) But the God of History understood that human history would be replete with religious and national leaders who could stir a crowd (and drive the news cycle) with personal charisma and brilliant rhetoric, or by telling the crowd precisely what it wanted to hear. History would be full of leaders who came to power and retained their positions on the strength of their ability to excite a mob with captivating speeches, rhetorical prowess, and oratorical baubles. Indeed, this season’s presidential debates and campaigns often seem to emphasize style over substance, wit over wisdom, and personal barbs over personal insight and leadership.
The newborn nation of Israel, with Moses at its helm, was to be different. God chose as His spokesman — His chief executive — a prophet with a speech impediment, a stutterer, a stammerer. It must have been painful to listen to Moses; it required commitment and seriousness of purpose on the part of the listener. It demanded a principled investment in the nation’s well-being, and in its future.
Moses did not excite his listeners. He ostensibly spoke slowly, haltingly, and without particular beauty, but his words changed Israel forever, and through the Jewish people he led, humanity was to be transformed.
God was honored to have a prophet of impeded speech as His messenger because that meant that God’s message would be received and embraced by His chosen people on the merits, out of commitment and seriousness of purpose, thoughtfully weighed and carefully considered.
We know from history the kind of leadership and values that have been embraced by mobs through dynamic presentation and exciting and forceful rhetoric alone. We know from history the violence and damage and evil that have resulted. The newborn nation of Israel was to be different. A stuttering prophet was a safeguard against moral seduction. Moses would not win over the Jewish people through style, charisma, or personal magnetism, nor through pandering, personal invective, ad hominem attacks, or clever barbs and sound bites. He would, rather, move the nation — and be judged by it — based on the content of his message. That is also an enviable model of governance for a modern democratic electorate.
This is a lesson that twenty-first-century Jews urgently need to master. Primary among the Jewish people’s historic moral mandates is the ability to recognize substance, and the willingness to forego seemingly attractive and more titillating alternatives which, despite the patina of popularity and the shiny appeal of accessibility, deprive us of a moral perspective of abiding, enduring, indeed, eternal value.
Moses’ halting speech reminds us that our tradition of aspiring to God’s will — and of acting as vehicles of providence — never has been the easy way. It requires study and skill, patience, principle, and commitment to distinguish between gems and trinkets, and to choose the gems, both in our personal spiritual journeys and in our national governance. This election season truly is about us. As President John F. Kennedy said, “In a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, ‘holds office’; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities.”
Rabbis Chiyya and Abbahu both were all too familiar with Roman values, politics, literature, and culture. Given the dizzying array of campaigns and debates, and candidates for high office now selling their wares — both gems and baubles — to the American electorate, these sages might well have quoted the wisdom of Cicero, still very popular in third century Caesarea, and still so very cogent in twenty-first century America:
“Primum honoris causa in scaenam redierant ii, quos ego honoris causa de scaena decesse arbitrabar” — “First on the stage for the sake of their honor were those who should have left it for the sake of their honor.”