When Moses’ father-in-law Jethro met the Israelites in the desert, he rejoiced when he heard about the rescue of the Jewish people from Pharaoh’s hand, and he brought offerings to God.
“And Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to share the meal with Moses’ father-in-law before God.” (Ex. 18:12)
The expression “before God” appears out of place here. In what way was this particular feast in God’s presence?
The Talmudic sage Rabbi Avin explained:
“To partake of a meal where a Torah scholar is present is like enjoying the splendor of God’s Divine Presence. After all, did Jethro, Aaron, and the elders of Israel eat before God? They ate before Moses! Rather, this verse teaches us that sharing a meal with a scholar [such as Moses] is like enjoying the splendor of God’s Presence.” (Berachot 64a)
Rabbi Avin’s statement needs to be clarified. What is so wonderful about eating with a Torah scholar? Wouldn’t studying Torah with him be a much greater spiritual experience? And in what way is such a meal similar to “enjoying the splendor of God’s Presence"?
The human soul, for all its greatness, is limited in its ability to grasp and enjoy God’s infinite wisdom. Whatever degree of pleasure we are able to derive from God’s Presence is a function of our spiritual attainments. The greater our spiritual awareness, the greater the pleasure we feel in God’s Presence. But while we will never gain complete mastery of Divine wisdom, even the small measure of comprehension that is possible is sufficient to fill the soul with tremendous light and joy.
A Torah scholar whose holiness is great, whose wisdom is profound, and whose conduct is lofty cannot be properly appreciated by the masses. Common folk will not understand his wisdom and may not be able to relate to his holiness. In what way can they connect with such a lofty scholar?
A scholar’s greatest influence takes place in those spheres where others can best relate to him. Most people will be unable to follow his erudite lectures , but a meal forms a common bond between the most illustrious and the most ordinary. This connection allows everyone to experience some aspect of a great scholar’s path in Torah and service of God.
When a Torah scholar reveals his great wisdom and holiness, the average person will be overcome by a sense of unbridgeable distance from such sublime attainments. He may despair of ever reaching a level so far beyond his own limited capabilities. But when sharing a meal with a scholar, the common physical connection enables people to be more receptive to the scholar’s noble traits and holy conduct.
Of course, those who are able to understand the scholar’s wisdom can more fully appreciate his greatness. Those individuals will derive greater benefit and pleasure from him. This is precisely Rabbi Avin’s point: just as the degree of pleasure gained from God’s Presence depends on the soul’s spiritual state, so too, the benefit we derive from a great scholar depends on our spiritual level and erudition.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 395-6)