Intellect must include faith, holiness

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Yitro

This week’s portion, Yitro, is the 17th portion (numerically equivalent to the word “good”). The main event is the giving of the Torah, which reaches a climax with the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, the central figure (and title) of this Torah portion is not Moses, but his father-in-law, who helps him to adopt a more manageable strategy to teach and guide this people. 

The commentaries relate that because of Yitro’s role, additional passages were incorporated within the Torah. More specifically, after witnessing the many miracles, Yitro boldly declares: “Now I know that G-d is greater than all gods….” (Exodus 18:11). The obvious question is, what is so significant about this statement? After all, everyone witnessed the Exodus and grand event at Sinai.

The commentaries provide an additional layer with a lesson for future generations. Yitro was a “priest of Midian,” a grand wizard in all forms of foreign worship and spiritual levels. The word Midian connotes separateness and division. The esoteric texts relate that although he was a powerful leader and guide, aware of many secrets within the universe, Yitro was not able to unify the revelations, forces and seeming pluralism and connect them with the ultimate source of all life — the Creator.

His eventual humility and shift in perspective, the acknowledgment of a higher truth from a wise-man and great mystic but one who lacked awareness of the higher level of unity, gave a boost to the event at Sinai. Interestingly, the name Yitro even implies “extra” or “to increase.” He possessed “extra” wisdom and caused an increase in the Torah by refining his mind.

The advantage of human intellect is clear. It is our main gift and tool to transcend the confines of this natural world. Yet, without the ingredient of faith and holiness, the mind inevitably serves as the prime tool for the ego. In fact, the ethical works explain how someone who misuses their gift of intellect suffers a greater spiritual fall than one whose natural emotions are raw and unaligned. At the time of the giving of the Torah, Yitro took his superior (extra) human chochmah (wisdom) and elevated it to become holy wisdom. His effort created an opportunity for all future transformations in worldly wisdom.

From then on, whenever someone uses knowledge of the sciences or foreign disciplines to better appreciate the wisdom of the Torah and uncover novel insights, they not only refine their own mind, but they cause an elevation in the Torah itself, as it was originally given — like a brighter light that emerges after dealing with previous obscurity.

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