Off the Pulpit

The Am Ha’aretz

In Jewish parlance, an unlearned person is called an “am ha’aretz” — literally, people of the land. Often this term is used disparagingly, to indicate someone ignorant, as opposed to a chacham, a learned, wise person.

Judaism famously values study and learning and intellect. But in the story of Abraham, the founder of our people, there is the astonishing fact that he not once but twice, bows to “am ha’aretz” the people of the land (Genesis, ch. 23).

Abraham our forefather teaches a valuable lesson. He esteems everyone, learned and unlearned alike. Abraham does not slight those who are of a lesser station or intellect; he actually bows in respect. 

Our Rabbis teach, “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” Each human being has something to teach as each has something to learn. In a divided country, recognizing the lessons of the other is critical to bridging the many gaps between different groups. Respect is not reserved for one type of personality or accomplishment. There is no deeper wisdom than to seek wisdom from everything and everyone God has made.