Am Yisroel: The Outlier Nation

We are currently laining and learning the parshiyos of the avos and imahos. Everyone knows the incredible middos they have given us all. But I would like to share another aspect of their legacy that I owe to the work of a popular secular writer.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of such bestsellers as Blink and The Tipping Point, published Outliers: The Story of Success in 2008. Making the title a new buzzword in the English language, Gladwell breaks the prevalently held notion that success is a function of one’s intelligence, ambition and perhaps a healthy dose of good luck. Gladwell demonstrates that in fact “we should look at the world that surrounds the successful – their culture, their family [and] their generation.” These extraordinary achievers – the outliers – do not appear in a vacuum. He states that we must “look beyond the individual.”

Of course, instead of a Torah source, Gladwell traces the proliferation and success of Jewish lawyers to their provenance in the sale of clothing. He even refers to this phenomenon as “the miracle of the garment industry” (page 151). Here, ostensibly, our ancestors learned that “if you work enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.”

Using similar logic, Gladwell explains why Korean Airlines has had such an abysmal safety record, an Oklahoman community of Italian immigrants lived incredibly long and healthy lives, and winning hockey players in Canada were almost all born during the months of January, February and March. I must confess myself incapable of evaluating the Koreans, Italians or Canadians. But our current parshiyos do teach us much about the DNA and genetic material of Am Yisroel. Let us look together at what the Torah reveals about the gifts and legacies of being a Jew.

First of all, let us remember the eternal words of the Sefer Hakuzari (1:26) that just as a rock is a different species than a flower and a flower than an animal, so is Am Yisroel intrinsically different than the rest of the world.

The rebbe, Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, was known to have asked, “Why is a Jew known by the letter yud (in Yiddish: A Yid)?” He answered that “just as a yud cannot be changed by making it longer or wider, for if you extend it, it becomes a vov and if you widen it it becomes a reish, so a Yid cannot change his essence without losing his identity as a Jew.”

From the time we became a nation, certain traits – compassion, bashfulness and generosity – defined us, and those who were proven otherwise were suspect that “their ancestors had not stood at Har Sinai” (Nedraim 20a).

Since we “became the Bnei Yisroel at Sinai” (Chulin 101b), we must explore exactly what happened to several million people at that event. Was it just the incredible moment of receiving the Torah, cataclysmic as that was, or did something actually happen to the entire nation?

Chazal (Shabbos 146a) are quite clear that Am Yisroel went through a physical and spiritual metamorphosis when we stood at the mountain 3,330 years ago. The “infection” that had entered mankind with the sin of Adam and Chava exited Klal Yisroel forever. The Alter of Slabodka explained that this meant that we returned to the pristine state of Adam before the Great Sin. As Rav Simcha Zissel Broide, rosh yeshiva of Chevron, added, “This transformation is why we recite in the Haggadah Shel Pesach, ‘Had He only brought us in front of Har Sinai, dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.’ For millennia, commentators have wondered, ‘What would have been sufficiently worthwhile at Sinai without receiving the Torah?’ The answer is that we were cured, uplifted and forged into the holy nation forever. We returned to the lofty level when man was created in the first place. For that, we shout a hearty dayeinu.”

Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l (Daas Chochmah Umussar, maamar 56), quoting the Alter of Kelm, added that this explains the cryptic posuk (Devorim 4:6) which states, “For it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples.” This is usually understood in the context of the awe in which Jewish wisdom is often held by the world. Surely there is something to that, as Chazal (Shabbos 75b) point to the astonishing Jewish ability to calculate the new moon, seasons and other mathematically involved reckonings. But the great baalei mussar detect another message in this timeless compliment to Klal Yisroel. They hear the echoes of the purification and refinement of Klal Yisroel so that they could receive the Torah. No other nation could accept the Torah – and in fact they rejected it for various reasons – because they had not been sufficiently purged to withstand the total change effected by Mattan Torah. To be sure, their refusal to accept the Torah indicated their reluctance to submit to significant transformative alteration as well. In any case, it was only Am Yisroel who undertook to become the outlier who was willing to be different than all others.

Interestingly, many gedolim have pointed out the paradox inherent in the rest of the posuk that promises us the respect of the nations. After assuring us that we will have wisdom and discernment, Hashem goes on to make it dependent upon our listening to “all these chukim (decrees) and who shall say ‘surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation.”

Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Telshe Yeshiva (Peninei Daas, page 137), notes that the gentiles usually deride us for adhering to apparently illogical chukim (see Rashi, Chukas 19:1). Why does the Torah here promise universal respect because we honor them religiously? He answers that “the Torah is revealing to us that, in truth, they begrudgingly respect us all the more for adhering to our mitzvos, especially when they cannot be proven scientifically or with human logic.” He may have based his words upon the commentary of the Malbim that “the nations recognize our singularity more when they realize that the source of our actions and commandments are clearly beyond human cognition and ability.”

Once we accept that our place in the world is not merely being smarter or more capable than someone else, but a nation that functions on another plane entirely, we must be eternally grateful for the gifts bestowed upon us by our holy ancestors.

Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l (Michtav M’Eliyahu 1:10), basing himself upon Rav Chaim of Volozhin (Ruach Chaim 5:3), teaches us that many traits for which the avos had to labor mightily to attain became ingrained in us as second nature. He offers the poignant example (2:191) that Avrohom’s ability to totally subjugate himself to Hashem’s will at the Akeidah “bequeathed to the nation the strength to withstand many oppositional forces throughout our history.”

It is well-known that many people during difficult times such as Churban Europa suddenly evidenced spiritual heroism far beyond what could be expected of them.

Rabbi Nosson Sherman related in the pages of The Jewish Observer the incredible story told by the Bluzhever Rebbe of Schneiweiss the Capo. He was universally detested by the Jews in the concentration camp for his cruelty to his brethren. However, one Yom Kippur, the Nazi commandant became aware that a Jew was fasting on Yom Kippur, a capital offense in the purgatory of Auschwitz. Turning to his usual ally, Schneiweiss, he ordered, “Make him eat!” This time, though, Schneissweiss bared his chest and declared proudly, “I, too, am fasting today.” The Nazi killed him on the spot and the Bluzhever Rebbe later announced to the inspired inmates, “Gehaster Schneiweiss iz gevoren heiliger Schneiweiss – The hated Schneiweiss just became the holy Schneiweiss.”

Indeed, Gladwell is correct that outliers benefit from certain characteristics and attributes that they gain by osmosis from their forbearers, but only Am Yisroel has had mesirus nefesh pumped into our veins, chesed of the avos and imahos energizing our genetic material, and kedusha soaring through our souls. The first thing we must do is acknowledge that the gifts are there, to be utilized when needed, even when we initially resist.

Secondly, as Rav Dessler concludes (1:10), despite this potential greatness which is our legacy, we still retain the free will to exercise it or ignore it. Schneiweiss and countless others embraced it at the crucial moment and others squandered the opportunity to touch eternity.

Yes, we are the ultimate nation of outliers, but we must periodically remind ourselves of the priceless gifts within ourselves, waiting to be utilized. May we use them to be mekadesh sheim Shomayim.