March 2, 2012 admin

Who is wise?

I’ve had a week of privileged conversations, most of them around the big oak table at my home (most of them open to anyone who wants to join in). On Friday night we invited couples just married and those about to get married, so that the former could give the latter advice (‘It was when she walked round me seven times that I truly really realised…’). On Sunday night we studied Mishnah with a group who’d moved from banking to philanthropy (There was a pious man whom Elijah the prophet used to visit. But after they built a gatehouse and walls he stopped coming: ‘I don’t go to places where you can no longer hear the knocking of the poor’. Talmud: Bava batra 7a) On Monday night it was people converting to Judaism and their partners, discussing Heschel’s book The Sabbath (‘I went to Sainsburys on Saturday afternoon because we’d run out of food; it totally spoiled Shabbat for me and I realised it was something I’d never ever do again.’) Tuesday and Wednesday nights were theology (‘Every person can become attached to God wherever he is, through the holiness that exists in every single thing…’ Rebbe Yehudah Aruyeh-Lev of Ger). Last night it was the question of whether trying to be a traditional Jew in the modern world was possible and desirable, or more like the Yiddish proverb about trying to dance at two weddings at the same time.

But my mind is drawn most to a quiet conversation with a small group of teenagers at the Haderech programme. We were discussing the question put by the second century sage Ben Zoma, ‘Who is wise?’ (Mishnah Avot 4:1). I asked the class for their own opinions and one girl replied, ‘It’s a person who doesn’t forget but always forgives’. Ben Zoma himself answered, ‘It’s someone who learns from all people’.

I’m moved by the humility of these responses. In a world where so much store is set by success, by getting it right, by having the edge over others in cleverness and coolness, wisdom is here understood as the quality of understanding and forgiving, of always being interested, always open to learning. It implies a deep and patient respect for life. Such a person doesn’t turn anyone away as too stupid, too unimportant, too young, too old or too boring. There is always, so the answers imply, a patient, understanding openness to life. Wouldn’t we all want to be like that?

The word ‘wisdom’ appears frequently in connection with the making of the sanctuary for God. ‘I shall fill him with the spirit of the Lord, in wisdom, understanding and in knowledge’, says God to Moses, referring to Bezalel, the artist who shares the key responsibility of leading the work. These are the very words used about God’s own self in the creation of the world, when ‘the spirit of the Lord’ hovered over the waters. Is wisdom then also an openness to this presence of God in beauty and wonder, potentially manifest in all things and all people, in the daffodils I noticed just out in flower this morning, in the person walking along the other side of the street? Is wisdom a kind of compassionate wakefulness, free of harsh judgement, but marked rather by generous understanding? Is it perhaps the most important of all qualities if we are to make a sanctuary, that is, make this often violent and unholy world around us into a place of true sanctuary, not just for the strongest, but for the weakest, for the bewildered, for the suffering, for all of us who struggle?

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