Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Where Wisdom Begins

We began our session singing a round of "Let's Start at the Very Beginning" and indeed that is where we began.

Where does wisdom begin? we were asked. In the Jewish Bible there is no word for "religious". Instead we speak of "Yira haShem", fear/awe of Adonai. There is not a good translation of "yira" thus the slash between fear and awe, a subject for much discussion. Psalm 111:10 speaks of "yira" as the beginning of wisdom and the foundation for understanding. Mishle 1:7 speaks of "yira of Adonai" as the beginning of knowledge and further references those who scorn wisdom and discipline as fools.

The phrase first appears in the story of Abraham in Genesis 20:11 when he notes that there is no fear of God here and thus fears for his life. It also arises in Exodus 1:17 when the midwives fail to kill the male Hebrew newborns as ordered. In this context there is an awareness that certain behaviors are unconditionally wrong.

What does fear/awe mean? Some suggested humility. The wise person appreciates the fact that he doesn't know all. We are only wise if we start from that premise. Wisdom is about a relationship, something outside of ourselves. The self-centered person lacks wisdom. The wise person learns from others.

Fear is a heightened state of awareness, it opens us up. It is a beautiful fear, not the fear we so often speak of, but something different.

Some focused on word construction - awe and awful, an interesting juxtaposition. Is too much awe frightening? Perhaps more than we can comprehend? It was suggested that fear and awe have a yin/yang relationship. When we learn something we realize how much more there is beyond this small portion that we now grasp. Perhaps it is fear of the enormity.

Awe as a state of wonder was proffered. Knowledge is fostered by curiosity, wisdom is fostered by awe. When we fear we want to run from something, when we feel awe, we want to approach. As we concluded this discussion it was suggested that reverence is perhaps a better word to embrace both awe and fear.

With the ground set, we turned to others who have contemplated this question. (see handout-Beginning of Wisdom)

Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote God in Search of Man notes that "the meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal."
The Pirki Avot 3:17 links wisdom and yira, neither can exist in the absence of the other and the Midrash Shmuel tells us that we have to use our wisdom for it to matter. Torah learning does not necessarily accompany wisdom.

One of the most interesting passages came from Menachem Meiri from the 13th century. While he speaks in support of the need for the commandments of the Torah, he also notes a natural inclination as necessary to perfect ethical behavior. Then he offers a sentence which seemed particularly modern - "For the commandments put a man in the right path only in a general way, they are unable to provide for subtle and new problems which constantly require the guidance of morality and ethics." It struck me as appropriate guidance for a judge.

We then turned our attention to Psalm 111 and Psalm 112. The first is public praise regarding God. The second addresses the experience of the man who has yire hashem. Within Psalm 111 we highlighted the phrase- "The works of the Lord are great, within reach of all who desire them." This phrase speaks to connection. It is offered and can be accepted if desired.

Our discussion then wandered into the growth of wisdom and how it can deepen with age, older and wiser we say and can only hope we gain the latter. Awe and fear grow as we face the enormity of the unknown. It was noted that death forces a focus, the "exquisitely beautiful frustration of being human" (Paula Pergament). The metaphor of the ocean was suggested, creating awe and also fear as we realize its power, both good and bad, as we stand at its edge.

We moved to our first participant-led section as Tuvia took us into the question of how wisdom relates to the arts. As an example of wisdom he told us the story of the noted Israeli poet Rachel Bluwstein and read her poem Meeting. Next to her grave is a metal box containing her poems that visitors can read. Tuvia shared a number of texts and images ranging from a Hassidic tale to the poem Desiderata. He noted that just because an artist may be accomplished in their particular discipline, doesn't make them a wise person, offering the example of Amiri Baraka, a poet laureate who made the outlandish claim that Israel knew about the World Trade Center bombing in advance. He left us with a question to consider - how we as artists can contribute to the wisdom and beauty in the world.

In our first meeting we had each brought something that we associated with wisdom and with our much enlarged group we still had several introductions to go. Jon shared a work by Simen Johan, a photographer whose work is a synthesis of sorts, not necessarily what it appears to be at first glance. Sandra recounted her journey from Mexico City to Florence to Minneapolis and shared an ornate mirror from her grandmother who left Russia. She noted that she sought her grandmother's presence when she looked into the mirror. A connection with ancestors seems to be an important theme in our search for wisdom.

David brought a Siddur and shared the first bracha which is a prayer for knowledge and intelligence, noting that was a basis for all subsequent prayer.

Aimee noted several connections to wisdom from an early recollection of observing a tree and sensing that its pattern could help to decode the universe. She also shared a photo of her daughter as an infant with Aimee's father near death, an inter-generational microcosm.

Rani tied it all together with a nautilus shell which reflects the Fibonacci Sequence which is found throughout nature. In the nautilus, the organism outgrows its chamber and walls it off and moves on, each step connected with what came before. Trees branch in a similar fashion.

I found myself thinking back to the quote from Heschel which talks of sensing in small things the beginning of infinite significance as well as one from Yosef ben Yehuda ibn Aknin from the 12th century. He writes "I have come to understand the wisdom that went into the forming of the limbs of my body and the power of my soul. Now then, if one can perceive the nature of God from a microcosm, how much more from a knowledge of all things created, the heavens and the earth and what is between them."

photo credit: Illuminated Nautilus via photopin (license)

No comments:

Post a Comment