By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Wisdom is the rarest of all important human qualities. Observers of the contemporary state of affairs often remark that wisdom, which is especially necessary in this day and age, is now particularly lacking.
Yet, at the same time, we are told that there is an age in life when most of us finally do obtain wisdom. Erik Erikson, the famous psychologist and thinker, believes that the course of the lifespan is marked by a series of developmental stages. At each stage of life, we master different developmental tasks. In late middle age, about age 60, one begins to achieve wisdom. Erikson’s book, Childhood and Society, devotes an entire chapter to defining wisdom and to detailing the process by which one achieves it, or fails to achieve it.
What is wisdom from a Jewish perspective? And what does wisdom have to do with this week’s Chanukah theme?
The search for wisdom is a frequent biblical theme. King Solomon was once assured by the Almighty that he would be granted the fulfillment of one wish. He wished for wisdom, obtained it, and is therefore termed in our tradition the wisest of all men. Reading this story of Solomon and other sacred texts leads to the conclusion that there are at least two components to wisdom. There is a knowledge base; mastery of the facts and its data. There is also, however, the essential ability to select from this database those bits of knowledge that apply to the situation at hand.
There is the mastery of material, and there is the ability to advance that material and make it relevant.
One of the early 20th-century masterpieces in the field of Jewish ethics is a book by Rabbi Joseph Hurvitz of Novardok, entitled Madregas Ha’Adam (Man’s Stature). Torah wisdom is one of Rabbi Joseph’s themes. He insists that mastery of the corpus of Jewish law in and of itself does not constitute wisdom. Knowledge in “matters of the world” is also necessary; abstract knowledge must be interrelated with concrete reality.
The symbol of the Chanukah festival is, of course, the Menorah. The original Menorah in the holy Temple was situated in the southern end of the inner Temple shrine and consisted of seven branches.
The Menorah symbolizes the light of wisdom, and its seven branches, the seven classical areas of wisdom, which include not only knowledge of the divine, but also mathematics and music.
Combining the wisdom symbolized by the Menorah with Rabbi Joseph’s insights, we begin to appreciate the complexity of the concept of wisdom. It encompasses theoretical and practical knowledge, and it involves the seven major areas of human inquiry.
It is in this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, we encounter the first man to be known as wise, to be recognized as a fount of wisdom. That man is the biblical Joseph, and it is the Pharaoh of Egypt who calls him wise.
You know the story. The Pharaoh has his dreams, Joseph interprets them and suggests a plan of action. Pharaoh is pleased by the plan and says to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the Spirit of God?” And he continues and says to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you.”
The Pharaoh recognizes that wisdom is not only mastery of facts and the ability to apply them; it is more than familiarity with the seven branches of worldly wisdom, and it is even more than life experience. Besides all that, it is a gift of God.
I have had the good fortune of meeting several wise people in my life, and I am sure that most of you have as well. Whenever I have met such people, I have been struck by how their words seemed to come from a higher place. Their insights reflect that they have access to a source beyond my ken.
This was Pharaoh’s experience when he heard Joseph’s interpretation. He realized that no course of study – no training, no mastery of expertise – was sufficient to account for the good counsel that he was hearing. He knew that the man in front of him was blessed with the Spirit of God.
There is no better time than this Shabbat, as we celebrate Shabbat Chanukah and read the story of Joseph, to reflect upon the quality of human wisdom and to fully appreciate this lesson: Whatever else wisdom comprises, it has one indispensable ingredient. It is ultimately the inspiration of the One Above.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.