July 13, 2024
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July 13, 2024
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The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 27) brings a story of Alexander of Macedonia who at that point had conquered the known civilized world and was now approaching a certain kingdom at the other end of the world. On his way there, he went to a certain province called Qartigna, which was comprised solely of women, and Alexander decided he wanted to conquer it. The city of Qartigna sent a delegation to Alexander informing him that he had nothing to gain by battling them: if Alexander were to win, his reputation would spread that he conquered a city of women, which is not such a great feat; and if he were to lose, his reputation would spread that he was defeated by women. Upon hearing this, Alexander retreated from his position, and when departing from that city he wrote the following text upon the gate: “I, Alexander of Macedonia, was a fool, until I came to the city of Qartigna and learned wisdom from [its] women.”

I had a number of questions on this midrash: 1) Just like people got “places to be,” emperors got “places to conquer.” Even if he might face embarrassment and a diminished reputation in the face of other kings, first of all it seems highly unlikely that he would lose the battle, and secondly, even if there is a risk of losing, isn’t the seemingly greater chance of gaining territory more important than the seemingly minimal chance of losing and tarnishing his reputation? Additionally, as mentioned, Alexander was seemingly at the head of his league in terms of “wins.” He had already conquered the entire known civilized world; what kings did he have to be afraid of, and who cares what anyone else thinks? Isn’t territory at the forefront of an emperor’s mind? 2) Why does Alexander go so far to call himself a fool? Should we call ourselves fools every time we learn something new? 3) Even if he’s right that he is a fool, why would he publicize that in an official way? Aren’t emperors supposed to present themselves as wise and intellectual in the eyes of their subjects? Why would he do something that would seemingly lower his nobility as a powerful warrior?

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz (Sichos Mussar, Vayakhel) notes the number of times the phrase “chacham lev” (a wise-hearted person) is used in the Torah, and asks: who and what exactly is a chacham lev? He says, let’s look at Shlomo Hamelech: Hashem asked Shlomo “what can I give you,” and Shlomo basically asked for one thing: wisdom. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz says that we see how much Shlomo desired wisdom—to the point that he neglected everything else in the world and only requested that. Says Rav Chaim, this is the prototype for one who is a chacham lev, namely, someone who sincerely desires wisdom and whose aspirations are to gain wisdom.

I thought that perhaps Alexander is someone who may embody to a certain degree the status of a chacham lev. Alexander heard a piece of wisdom but he didn’t just leave it in the air and continue with his daily grind of world domination. He took the wisdom to heart to the point that he left aside his main pursuit as a warrior. Yeah, he had places to be and places to conquer, but the places of wisdom were the priority. He heard a true concept, one filled with sound advice, and wouldn’t let go of it. It mattered more than territory, the same way wisdom mattered more to Shlomo than anything else. That may explain why he didn’t go in for the kill even though the odds may have been his and even if there may have been no threat to his reputation.

In order to truly accept truth and wisdom, one needs humility. Unfortunately, many people thirst for wisdom, but at the same time they carry a simultaneous (irrational) idea that they are full of wisdom already—a defensive mechanism borne from a fear that by learning new wisdom one would feel dumb as a fool. Someone who feels like he knows it all represents someone who is full. If you’re full, you have no room for any more. Perhaps Alexander taught us that in the pursuit of wisdom, one needs to “make himself” like a fool—to be empty—in order to be open to new ideas and knowledge, and in order to accept and implement. Pirkei Avot in the very first mishna teaches that Moshe accepted the Torah from Sinai. Doesn’t it make more sense to say he accepted it from Hashem?! This teaches us that Moshe received the Torah—the ultimate wisdom—from a state of Sinai—a low and humble place—to teach us that only through humility can one truly merit Torah. One needs to make himself low in a certain sense in order to become great. Alexander lowered himself to his subjects and others by proclaiming his “fool-ness,” which shows how much Alexander appreciated wisdom—to the point that he was willing to teach the people how important wisdom is even at the potential expense of his reputation being marred in the eyes of his own people and others. This may explain why Alexander went to the extreme in calling himself a fool, and why he went to such an extent to let everyone know it.

I think we can learn from Alexander of Macedonia that one who appreciates and has developed a love for wisdom and truth places that pursuit and ideal on a caliber that exceeds materialistic desires, ego, and reputable status.

By Binyamin Benji


Binyamin Benji learns in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan. He holds an MSW and is the author of the weekly Torah Talk in the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ newsletter. He can be reached at [email protected].

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