Parashat Yitro tells of Matan Torah – G-d’s giving Beneh Yisrael the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Midrash teaches that after we received the Torah, the other nations felt jealous and complained to G-d, arguing that Beneh Yisrael did not deserve this special distinction of receiving the Torah. They felt that Beneh Yisrael were no different than any other nation, and thus they were no more worthy of the Torah than any other nation. G-d responded by saying, “Bring your genealogical records.” Meaning, the other nations do not have the same “Yihus” – pedigree – as Beneh Yisrael, and thus they could not receive the Torah.
How do we explain this Midrash? Why is special pedigree a necessary prerequisite for receiving the Torah?
King Shlomo teaches in Kohelet (3:19), “Motar Ha’adam Min Ha’behema Ayin” – there is no difference between human beings and animals. At first glance, this seems very difficult to understand. Is there really no difference between the human being and the animal?
One explanation given for this verse is that “Motar Ha’adam Min Ha’behema” – the advantage and power that the human being has over the animal is “Ayin” – the ability to say to oneself, “No,” to deny oneself something he instinctively wants. When an animal feels hungry and sees food, it will go ahead and take it. By contrast, a Jew who is given a piece of scrumptious food during Ne’ila at the end of Yom Kippur, after twenty-four hours of fasting, will not place it anywhere near his mouth until after the fast. We have the same physical drives as animals, but we have the power of “Ayin,” the ability to restrain these drives and deny ourselves the enjoyment that our bodies instinctively want.
This power, however, requires training. In order to deny ourselves what our physical drives make us want, we need to hone our skills of self-restraint and self-discipline. And this is why “Yihus” is so vital for receiving the Torah and committing to live by its rules. The Torah imposes on us many rules and restrictions that require, at times, restraining the animalistic drives within us. We are able to commit ourselves to these rules and restrictions because of our “Yihus,” because we are the descendants of Abraham, Yishak and Yaakov, who taught us by example and instilled within all of us the power of discipline and self-restraint. They implanted within their descendants the special quality of “Ayin,” and this quality is what we need to commit ourselves to the Torah.
May we all be worthy descendants of our sacred patriarchs, and succeed throughout our lives in developing and properly utilizing this unique skill of “Ayin” so we can live up to the demands and expectations of G-d’s treasured nation.