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The High and the Mighty: Ethics of the Fathers, 3:16

The High and the Mighty: Ethics of the Fathers, 3:16

Our perceptions of others may teach us more about ourselves.


Rabbi Yishmael said, "Be yielding to a superior, gentle to the young, and receive every person with joy." Ethics of the Fathers, 3:16

In the classic film Casablanca, Peter Lorre invites himself to sit down at Humphrey Bogart's table and says, "You really despise me, don't you, Rick?"

Humphrey Bogart replies, "If I gave you any thought at all, I probably would."

The audience can't help enjoy Bogart's debonair Rick Blaine putting down Lorre's sniveling Ugarte. In his character as Rick, Bogart was the epitome of cool before the term was even invented.

Cool is not a concept that translates well into Jewish philosophy.

But cool is not a concept that translates well into Jewish philosophy. The attitude defined by aloof superiority, calculated indifference, and casual disdain is precisely the opposite of how we are meant to carry ourselves through life. The fleeting pleasure that comes from a sarcastic barb or a derisive smirk reveals the depth of our psychological and emotional insecurity. No spiritually healthy person could possibly consider disparaging another person to be a form of entertainment.


In this deceptively simple mishna, Rabbi Yishmael alludes to three categories of people with which we all interact in the course of our lives.

First are our superiors, those who are placed -- either through ability, seniority, or luck --in positions of power and authority above us. These are the rulers and the bosses, the parents and the teachers, the masters and the commanders who make the rules and give the orders.

The Talmud tells us that one who performs a good deed in response to a command has greater merit than one who acts of his own initiative. This seems at first counterintuitive. Is it not better to act rightly motivated by the desire to do good than only in response to orders from a higher authority?

We find here an insight into human psychology. All of us have the deep-seated desire to be rulers over ourselves, to be masters of our own destiny, to determine our own course and our fate. The moment we are given orders, something within us urges us to rebel, to reject those instructions for no other reason than as an expression of our own autonomy.

More often than not, the impulse to rebel leads us into folly and betrays our own best interests. Refusing the instructions of an employer, a commanding officer, a policeman, or the federal government will usually result in the loss of employment or personal freedom, with consequences that extend far into the future. As much as we might feel justified in asserting our independence, Rabbi Yishmael warns us against the consequences of denying the power of authority.

Even more significantly, by submitting to authority we gain mastery over our own egos. Both history and psychology testify that so much of human conflict stems from arrogance, pride, and the lust for power and honor. Every time we yield to those whose position gives them power over us, we take back a measure of control over the ego and break the hold that the ego has over us.

Consequently, every exchange with a flesh and blood superior provides us an opportunity to refine our relationship with the Almighty -- the ultimate authority.


The second category includes those people we consider to be our inferiors. Those who are "young" in our eyes may be truly young in years. In more general terms, however, this grouping refers to those whom we believe have little to offer us because they are lacking in resources, wisdom, or power.

Offering a kind word to the poor is equivalent to giving charity.

The trait of noblesse oblige, of respect and concern for those less fortunate than oneself, is among the most admirable human qualities. By conducting ourselves toward those who have nothing but their self-respect, we brighten their lives by showing them that they have our respect as well. The Talmud teaches that offering a kind word to the poor or the lowly is equivalent to giving charity, for it restores the spirit as surely as money provides food, clothing, or shelter.

The final category includes those people we consider our equals. After warning us against resentment toward those more empowered than ourselves and against disdain for those less privileged than ourselves, Rabbi Yishmael concludes by warning us against overlooking those who fall into neither category. Perhaps we will assume that those of comparable station are independent, and therefore have no need for us. Perhaps we will fear that we are in competition with them in attaining the next rung of the social ladder. Either way, we should recognize that every person is fashioned in the image of God, and we should celebrate our opportunity to come in contact with every one of the Almighty's most exalted creations.

But one final step remains to fully understanding the subtlety of Rabbi Yishmael's teaching. Once we acknowledge that every person has been created for a specific reason and placed where he can best fulfill his purpose, then we cannot help but acknowledge that those who hold positions of superiority over us were placed in their positions as agents of Divine. Be yielding to a superior, says Rabbi Yishmael, as if your superior were appointed to his position by God Himself -- for indeed he was.

By the same token, in every circumstance where we find ourselves in positions of superiority over others, be gentle to the young, and act toward them as if God Himself had placed you there for their benefit -- for indeed He has.

By adopting Rabbi Yishmael's attitude, we will naturally receive every person with joy, brightening our own lives and the lives of all those around us.

February 9, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 9

(9) Orly, February 20, 2008 1:10 PM

Living life to the fullest

Wow- that was really an eye-opener. It is so easy to come into personal conflict with people because of the above, beneath and on-par mentalities people use with eachother. If we could really see everyone as messengers of G-d fulfilling His will, we would be able to use our positions in life to live happy, productive and fulfilled lives.

(8) Yvonne Michele Anderson, February 15, 2008 5:58 PM

Legitimate Authority

I enjoyed reading Rabbi Yonason's article. However, I find that distinctions which may turn on the question of whether or not one holds legitimate authority, and whether or not one wields authority justly, in line with Jewish law, were not addressed. I read an interesting blog a few weeks back on which addressed the latter question. Is not one supposed resist authority when it commands one to do something that is against Jewish law? Moreover, when "laws of the land" clash with Jewish law, isn't one released from having to follow that law (of the land)? As discussed by the author of the blog to which I refer, aren't there are even instances in the Bible in which Moses and Abraham disagree with G-d...? On the question of illegitimate authority, could not one argue that authority unjustly gained is illegitimate, and therefore not to be respected? Aren't there times when resisting authority is what Jewish law requires of us? When persons in positions of legitimate authority abuse such authority - essentially lose humility and respect for the power that they wield - shouldn't they lose legitimacy as leaders under Jewish law? Is not the right and ability to resist illegitimate authority the protection which G-d provide inferiors, the little people, under Jewish law...?

(7) Anonymous, February 13, 2008 9:59 AM

brotherhood is a blessing

Rabbi Goldson shows us that hip and cool is not the desire of the Almighty. Brotherhood and understanding will connect us more than aloofness or haughtines. Smile, be kind, be humble. This is a mensch. Men must be masculine and women feminine and respectful of each other. Humility is what makes a Jew a Jew, not fame, fortune, or Bogart wit.

(6) Rabbi Yonason Goldson, February 11, 2008 10:37 PM

Not any authority

Please see Exodus 23:2, which anticipates the injunction to decide justice according to majority rule by declaring "Do not follow the majority to do evil."

The same applies concerning authority. Rabbi Yishmoel is referring to legitimate authority, where the intuition of the individual conflicts with the judgment of the "powers-that-be." Neither does he command us not to question authority, but to recognize the limitations of our own influence and proceed with caution before trusting our own subjective opinions.

(5) Joey, February 11, 2008 11:37 AM

I agree with some of the other commentators, that Rabbi Goldson may not have taken the proper amount of time to explore this issue as fully as possible. While God does arrange one's circumstances for his and others' benefit, that does not mean that the person in question always merits what he has been given. The rabbi is right, however, that we should recognize that everyone is made in God's Image, and have respect for all; but, while we should have respect for others, we also need to remind ourselves that not everyone is respectable. God bless.

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