Yisro – Jewish Genetics

In this week’s Torah portion of Yisro, the Jewish people received the Torah from Hashem at Har Sinai. There is a famous Chaza”l in the beginning of tractate Avoda Zara which describes how Hashem first went around to all the nations of the world and offered the Torah to them but they refused to accept it after they asked what was inside; however, when Hashem offered it to the Jewish people they said the famous words “na’aseh vi’nishmah,” we will do and then we will listen. They accepted the yoke of the Torah without even asking what was inside. There are commentaries who say this blind acceptance was for the Written Torah only, and there is a famous Chaza”l that says that the Jews accepted the Oral Torah only after Hashem threatened them with annihilation by putting Har Sinai over their heads and threatening to crush them all if they didn’t accept the Oral Torah. The Jewish people later re-accepted the Oral Torah out of pure love in the days of Mordechai and Esther after Haman, his family, and followers were wiped out.

The Gemara in Beitza 25b asks in the name of Rebbe Meir: “Why was the Torah given to Jews?” and answers: “Because they are brazen.” The Maharsha asks a blaring question. Didn’t the gemara in the first chapter of Avoda Zara say that in fact Hashem offered the Torah to all the nations of the world and that they simply didn’t accept it? Yet here it implies that the Torah was destined for the Jewish people anyways? The Maharsha answers that while Hashem gave every nation a chance to accept the Torah of their own free will, He did not threaten each nation with annihilation if they didn’t accept it. Hashem only made that threat to the Jews, and in fact the gemara in Avoda Zara says that the non-Jews will have a claim against Hashem in the future for not giving them an equal opportunity to accept the Torah, in the same fashion as the Jews. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

 So why did Hashem do this for the Jews? It is because they are brazen, and the Torah would be a perfect complement to their nature. What does brazen mean? The Maharsha in Beitza says it does not mean they are strong but rather that they are argumentative and stubborn, willing to stand behind their word and not give up their position easily. The Maharsha explains that the main reason it makes sense that the Torah was given to the Jews is based on a mishna in Pirkay Avos: “That one who is bashful won’t be successful in learning” (Avos 2:5). He also gives another reason why the Torah is a perfect fit for the Jews by quoting a gemara in Nedarim 20a, saying that fear of Hashem will be on their face, which refers to the character trait of having a sense of shame.

The Gemara in Nedarim in fact quotes our Torah portion: “In order so that His fear will be on your face” (Shemos 20:17) and says this refers to shame, quoting the end of that pasuk: “so that you will not sin.” The Gemara says that we learn from here that shame brings one to fear of sin. From here they say that it is a positive sign for a person to be bashful, or have a sense of shame. Others say that whoever becomes shameful will not come to sin so quickly and anyone who does not noticeably have a shameful demeanor, is evident that his ancestors did not stand at Har Sinai. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

The Maharsha summarizing says that the opposite of a shameful demeanor is a brazen demeanor and the trait of shame is one of the signs of a Jew, as stated in Yevamos 79a. When it comes to one’s character they are saying it is a positive sign for one to be bashful or shameful, but for one’s learning Pirkay Avos says that the bashful one cannot learn. The Maharsha now resolves a blatant contradiction that evolved from the gemara in Beitza to the gemara in Nedarim, namely that the reason why the Torah was given to the Jews was because they are brazen makes sense because (1) one who is bashful cannot successfully learn Torah, and (2) the Torah will weaken his brazenness, ‘for the fear of Torah is on their face,’ which is referring to shame.

Shame seems to be a very positive character trait. Not only that, but King David said there are 3 signs of a Jew: (1) merciful, (2) bashful and (3) doers of kindness (Yevamos 79a).  The Maharsha in Yevamos, explaining the sign of bashfulness or shame, cross-references the gemara in Nedarim that fear on one’s face is referring to shame, and the opposite is a brazen face. However the Maharsha says that this sign of shame in a Jew is not their temperament or nature, as we know based on the gemara in Beitza that the only reason why Hashem gave us the Torah is because we are brazen. Rather, the reason why we are called bashful is because the Torah weakens our strength of brazenness and humbles our hearts, as Rashi points out there. This is what the pasuk “in order so that His fear will be on your faces” means, that by the giving of the Torah Hashem was telling us that He is giving us the Torah so that His fear will be on our faces in order that we will not come to sin. The fact that shame came to us through the giving of the Torah is most apparent from the gemara in Nedarim when it says that whoever does not have shame on his face it is apparent that their ancestors did not stand at Har Sinai. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
On the one hand it would seem that built into the genetic makeup of a Jew is the trait of being brazen, argumentative, and challenging without ever giving up. In a sense it is our way of survival. Not only that but it is the only way to successfully learn Torah. On the other hand, by learning Torah we weaken our sense of brazenness and cause ourselves to develop a sense of shame which instills a fear of Hashem so that we won’t come to sin too quickly. This sense of shame or bashfulness can be seen on our faces, to the point that it is a sign of a Jew. However, what if a Jew does not learn Torah; maybe he or she is not Torah observant. Does that mean they are not Jewish? G-D forbid! Jewish law says as long as your mother is Jewish and her mother is Jewish, etc. etc. all the way back to Har Sinai then you are Jewish, whether or not you learn or observe Torah. So how can the gemara in Nedarim say that if one does not have a shameful face (which evolves through Torah learning) then it is evident that his ancestors did not stand on Har Sinai, meaning he or she must not be Jewish? That is false!

We must say that the trait of shame is also an inherent trait of a Jew which is apparent upon the face of any Jew whether they learn Torah or not, because their ancestors stood at Har Sinai. Not that the gene of brazenness was mutated at Har Sinai into the gene of shame but rather the main genetic makeup of a Jew as said before is brazenness and that inherent trait is very useful for a Jew for without it they cannot learn optimally.  However, from the time our ancestors received the Torah on Har Sinai they developed a sort of recessive gene of shame, which doesn’t skip a generation but is in each and every one of us to the point that it can be recognizable on any Jewish face to some extent. However, if one uses his brazenness towards Torah learning then he can develop that sense of shame to increase fear of sin so that one is less prone to do the wrong thing and more careful to do Hashem’s will, the right thing.

What results according to this is something quite fascinating, in that it is possible for a person to have two totally opposite character traits inside him and herself, even from the time of birth. One can naturally be stronger than the other but we are expected to use and develop both of them even at the same time as we see here that the more brazen one is the better learner he or she can become but at the very same time one taps into his or her sense of shame and is supposed to develop it which automatically means he or she weakens his or her brazenness which is good because that is a sign of being G-D fearing which will slow one down from sinning, but on the same token one still has to persistently use that brazenness to learn more Torah and to be sure he understands everything more clearly in order to be even more careful from sinning, and the cycle just continues on and on.

But this is the complexity of a Human being and the greatness of mankind!

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