Devarim-Wise Men

Back in Exodus (Shemot 31:2-3), Moshe indicated that he needed a “few good men.”  To be more precise, he needed men who were “wise, understanding and knowledgeable.”  He needed them for the purpose of building the mishkan. Rashi described for us the difference between “wise” and “understanding:”  One who is “wise” hears wisdom from another person and absorbs it, while one who is “understanding” draws upon what he already knows and applies it to new situations.

In our parsha (Deut. 1:13), we again find that Moshe needs a “few good men,” this time for the purpose of judging the Jewish people.  Again, they need to be “wise, understanding and knowledgeable.”  However, this time, the Torah tells us that “understanding men” are not to be found (Deut 1:15).  Rashi gives us more color: “Arius (a non-Jew) asked R’ Yosi, what is the difference between a “wise” man (a chacham) and an “understanding” man” (navon)?  R’ Yosi answered with a parable: A wise man is like a wealthy money-changer who works when one brings him money, and when he has no money to chage, he does nothing.  And understanding man is like a merchant who changes money upon request and when not, he looks elsewhere for business.”

Some questions:  Why did Rashi add the parable here in our parsha, and not in the earlier parsha mentioning “wise, understanding and knowledgeable men”?  And furthermore, why was it important for Rashi to mention the names of the people involved?

In answer: There are two types of “understanding.”  One requires simple deductive reasoning, as when one is presented with information and draws conclusions.  For example, Moshe and the people in Exodus were told how to make the menorah and other vessels of the mishkan, but they didn’t know in what shape to make them.  God showed them a picture, and based upon the picture, they reasoned out how to craft the vessels.  This is simple deductive reasoning, and there were enough such “understanding” men available when it came to building the mishkan.

However, when it came to judging the Jewish people, a whole new level of “understanding” is necessary.  In this case, the judge must know how to apply legal principles to new cases.  He must be able to reason from previous cases, involving similar principles, and apply the same principles to new situations as they come up.  This is a much deeper level of understanding, and it is the level that was missing in that generation.  There were enough “understanding men” who could look at a picture of an object and deduce how to make it.  But, there were not enough “understanding” men who could grasp principles well enough to apply them to new situations.

And that is why Rashi mentions the parable in our parsha, regarding judges, and not in the previous parsha regarding craftsman.  Rashi wished to make it clear that our parsha is speaking about the second mode of “understanding,” in which one must apply principles.  This is like the money changer who “looks for new business.”  The judge who is able to apply the correct principles to new situations is like one who “finds new business.”  He does not simply manipulate the knowledge he already possesses.  He looks for new ways of applying his knowledge.  In the Talmud, it was R’ Yosi who was considered the expert in this type of intellect…when he passed away, it was said that “understanding” (bina) left the world (Talmud Yerushalmi, end of Sota).  That is why Rashi brings the parable here in our parsha and not earlier in Exodus where it is discussing the craftsmen.  And that is also why Rashi mentions the names in the parable.

For more detail, go to

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 34, Pp 9-16

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