Wednesday, October 28, 2015

In Search of Hakhma

by Susan Weinberg 10/27/2015

"Echoes: Voices of Wisdom" is our theme this year, one that we haven't yet absorbed in its entirety, still struggling to recall it. We often resort to our short-hand version of "wisdom", yet "echoes" and "voices" frame it up and hint at where we find it.

In our last session we referenced the Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, which states, Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…(Talmud - Avot 4:1)

With that in mind we turned to text and the voices that use the term "wisdom", looking for context to determine its meaning. The Hebrew word for Wisdom is "Hakhma" (pronounced Hokma). I learned that quite recently during the retreat as I examined the stained glass windows in the former synagogue where we attended a concert. The creator of the "wisdom" window used the Torah to represent wisdom with the word below it. We too turned to Torah seeking the meaning of wisdom.

Meryll informed us that the wisdom books of the Tanach are the books of Job, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Proverbs. I did a search for the word "wisdom" in the Hebrew Bible and found that these three books do indeed account for 50% of it.

We began our exploration identifying synonyms for wisdom. Some of us offered words, others sentences and concepts. Among them was the concept as discussed in the Indian culture of the ability to think and act where common sense prevails and choices are beneficial and productive. Another approach was in terms of a hierarchy of information with data at the bottom, then knowledge which is applied data, then wisdom which is the application of knowledge to achieve a desired result. These were very results oriented forms of wisdom, focused on action.

A more text focused definition was offered from the first bracha of the Amidah which says "You graciously bestow knowledge upon man and teach mortals understanding. Graciously bestow upon us from You, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are You Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge."

And then we offered a flood of words: truth, insight, perception, openness, knowledge, understanding, questioning, justice, judgment, integrative and action or doing.

With that grounding we began to examine passages from the Tanakh and Rabbinic literature. The first mention of wisdom in the Tanakh is in Genesis 41:33 where Pharaoh seeks a man of discernment and "hakhma", ultimately finding Joseph to make sense of his dreams and act as a problem solver and manager.

The next time hakhma is mentioned is in Exodus 31:1-6 where God speaks to Moses about a craftsman who he has endowed with a divine spirit of hakhma, ability and knowledge. We noted that wisdom was distinct from ability and knowledge as those qualities were noted separately and secondly that God was the giver of hakhma. Wisdom is associated with craftsmanship of precious metals, quite a change from the prior role of the Israelites as hard laborers, "shlepping" stone to build pyramids. In this post-slavery world the first people endowed with hakhma are artists. The same passage goes on to speak of hakmat lev, a wise heart, but in this context they are granted hakhma in order to follow commands, not an association we are prone to in today's world. As artists we may want to think in terms of hahkmat-yad, wisdom of the hands.

What do our sages say about wisdom? Rashi notes that hakhma is what a person learns from others. Associated words are T'vunah which is a wider understanding gained through intelligent application of what one learned, also known as ability. Finally there is Da'at, knowledge.

We were then asked to examine a passage in I Kings 2:9 where King David speaks to his son Solomon shortly before David's death. He is briefing him on who he needs to watch out for and to use his wisdom on how to deal with an objectionable person even as he urges him to deal with him rather aggressively. Finally we turned to the Haggadah's wise child who is referred to as wise due to his challenging and questioning tone.
The second half of our session was devoted to mind mapping applied to wisdom. With colored pencils and markers at our side we began free associating, capturing words associated with wisdom in a variety of formats. Many reflected the fluid and evolving nature of wisdom, egg shaped ovals, leaves and water. In our small group we determined that wisdom is relational and must be shared and touch others. We absorb it and also find it through carving, cutting away what is non-essential to shape it much as a sculptor. It is not just judgment, but must be tempered with feeling, kindness and giving in order to find our heart of wisdom.

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