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What Is Wisdom?

“And you shall speak to all the wise-hearted whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make Aaron’s garments to sanctify him, [so] that he serve Me [as the high priest].”

Wisdom is the key to Judaism. The Talmud often says that a man without wisdom has spent a wasteful life. The Tabernacle, G-d’s home in the desert, required expert craftsmen who could work with stone, wood and precious metals. The making of the interior curtains and the matting on the roof was intricate and innovative.

There are few references to wisdom in the Torah. Usually, G-d commands and man obeys. Understanding comes with implementing the divine word. But in this week’s portion, G-d enumerates those eligible to produce the Tabernacle. They were not born gifted, nor did they train for their task. Instead, G-d filled these people with the “spirit of wisdom,” an act that enabled them to fulfill His commandments.

Yaakov Ben Asher defines “spirit of wisdom.” Born in Germany to the famous Rabbeinu Asher Ben Yehiel in the 13th Century, Yaakov wanted to focus on Jewish law. But as brilliant as he was, Yaakov was advised to first write a commentary on the Torah to gain credibility. His commentary, known as Baal Haturim, remained in manuscript form for centuries, most of it lost. What was eventually published consisted mostly of interpreting words according to their numerical value.

What is the spirit of wisdom? Rabbi Yaakov asks, “He who is filled with fear of G-d.”

To modern man, this sounds ridiculous. What does G-d have to do with wisdom? Today, wisdom can be found in schools or from people deemed highly intelligent. It can be culled from books.

The Torah’s view of wisdom is unique. Fear of G-d is the key to absorb divine intelligence. Ego annuls fear of G-d and blocks wisdom. The result is a failure to comprehend, leaving only the ability to parrot others. And the same goes for one who teaches wisdom.

A major element in wisdom is knowing when to desist. Rabbi Yochanan, the author of the Jerusalem Talmud, wanted to teach Rabbi Elazar the secret of creation, known in Hebrew as “Maaseh Merkava.” In Scriptures, three prophets had described such visions in riddles. The sages frowned upon exploring this subject, warning that mortal man lacks the tools to understand the heavens and could easily be misled. Those who had studied such esoteric teachings often met with tragedy.

“I am not sufficiently old,” Rabbi Elazar told Rabbi Yochanan.

When Rabbi Yochanan died, Rabbi Elazar had reached the proper age to learn this mysterious teaching. Now, Rabbi Assi approached Rabbi Elazar.

“Come, I will teach you the Maaseh Merkava,” Rabbi Assi said.

Rabbi Elazar did not accede. “If I would have merited this, I would have learned this from Rabbi Yochanan, your teacher,” he said.

Another element in wisdom is the willingness to share. G-d does not impart wisdom for it to remain with any individual. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntvich, known as the Kli Yakar, said G-d explained to Moses the complexities of the Tabernacle, its vessels and the priests’ garments so that he can teach others. The divine word was meant to educate future generations.

A wise man is also a caring man. He cannot remain aloof amid the suffering of the Jewish people. To understand the secrets of the Torah, he must have a “heart that worries.” He cannot view his wisdom as a lever for superiority. Flattery, regardless of the source, would be poison.

Wisdom is not knowledge. Comprehension is key. The student must be inciteful, able to cut through verbiage and reach the heart of the matter. He must also have the ability to explain complex matters in a succinct manner.

Finally, the wise man must live a simple life. Rabbi Yaakov witnessed unspeakable cruelty in Germany, including massacres and kidnappings. He lived in abject poverty, unable to buy clothes for the Sabbath and holidays. He refused to be paid for his guidance. Still, he raised funds for poor people. His life was cut short during his journey through the Greek island of Chios. He and his 10 companions were said to have fallen ill and died.

Little is known about Rabbi Yaakov’s life. In the long run, he served as a vessel for knowledge. He wrote the Arba Turim, or Four Rows, named after the arrangement of jewels in the breastplate of the high priest. Written simply and clearly, Arba Turim became the definitive code of Jewish law and the basis of countless halachic works over the next six centuries. There is virtually no philosophy or ethics, rather a practical guide to a Jewish life.

Unlike other religions, Judaism contains no secrets. Students are taught the law without censorship. The more devout and committed the student, the more he will know and understand. In turn, the student is expected to behave the same way with his peers. Rabbinical courts must explain and circulate their rulings. There is no privileged class that harbors secrets that pertain to the worship of G-d.

“And you bring near to yourself your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel to serve Me [as priests]: Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons.”

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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