Can There Be Hope Again After Hope Has Been Lost?

(D’var Torah prepared for Erev Shabbat – Matot-Massei and its accompanying Haftarah from Jeremiah.)

 

I. Last year I devoted my religious blog entirely to writing about the nexus each week between the Torah portion and its companion haftarah. One realization of this work that was especially striking to me was how much the haftarah actually supports and reinforces the parashah, and vice versa. I’m still not exactly sure how that happens, but it frequently and wondrously does.

 

II. I see three particular messages that flow back and forth from parashah to haftarah this week. But, before we get to them, let’s understand the general setting.

A. In Torah, we’re now in the concluding chapters of B’midbar, in the double portion of Matot and Massei. The people are on the verge of entering the land, and so very hopeful. Can you imagine the excitement they must have felt? The anticipation? The readiness?

B. Yet, in the haftarah, in Jeremiah, we instantly move forward several centuries, only to find an incredibly different landscape. Here instead of hope, promise and God-ward intention, we find hypocrisy, corruption, and oncoming despair and desolation.

C. On this Shabbat, we have both texts in front of us – one, expressive of a moment of great hope, on the cusp of grand fulfillment; and the other, reflective of abandonment by the people of their God, with a sense of their being on the edge of losing it all.

What in the world happened to precipitate such a decline? What does it mean for us? Is there any basis for hope in this sad story?

Let’s take a look.

 

III. In Jeremiah, God lets us know immediately how far the people have fallen: “What wrong did your forefathers find in Me, that they distanced them from Me…? I brought you into a fruitful land; but you came and contaminated my land, and made my heritage an abomination.”

How could this have happened?

Perhaps we can find clues by looking back and forth from the Torah text and the haftarah.

A. First, both texts evidence the importance of sound, principled, God-oriented leadership to a community’s wellbeing.

1. How does our double Torah portion begin? Moses speaks to the rahshay hamatot, to the heads of the tribes, giving them crucial instructions as to how to determine the validity of vows and the means of honoring them.

Moses is preparing the next generation of leaders, teaching them in the use of both righteousness and mercy in guiding the people’s affairs.

There’s a sense that while vows are important in and of themselves, the regulation and implementation of vows is representative of all the work that leaders must do and do well.

2. This theme of leadership’s importance also plays out in Moses’ complex negotiations with the Gadites and the Reubenites, with respect to their desire for land in separate territories.

This request was controversial and complicated. Some argued then, and some still do, that the request was wrong-headed and should not have been approved.

Yet, Moses works with the tribe’s leaders respectfully to find common ground. The two tribes commit militarily to help the community over time in taking the land, and they, in turn, are allowed to fulfill their ambitions.

3. At the end of Massei, we see again the vital importance of good leaders. The daughters of Zelophehad advocate, in the absence of male heirs, for their retaining the inheritance of their father.

With God’s help, Moses and the daughters work, as good leaders do, to reach just and righteous ends.

4. But, when we turn to the haftarah, what do find has happened to the community’s leadership as time has passed? The leaders have failed totally. Far worse than merely missing the mark in their duties and assignments, those in power seem to be altogether disconnected from God.

Listen to God’s indictment of the leaders: “Those charged with teaching the Torah did not know Me.” They, the Kohanim, the prophets, and the shepherds “went after those that cannot avail.” The house of Israel has been shamed – “they, their kings, their princes, their priests, and their prophets.”

5. The Torah is absolutely fastidious in teaching the essential place for true leadership in guiding the community.

Yet, in Jeremiah, no strong, principled leaders are to be found. Rather, it’s an awful, ungodly, and corrupt leadership that has been singularly instrumental in bringing Judah to the verge of a calamitous end.

B. In a second respect in which both texts – together – teach us vital lessons, we see how crucial it is for the people to experience, remember, and honor the ways of deliverance by which God has brought us to His service.

1. What do we find at the beginning of Massei? All the stops of the entire desert route from Egypt to the Promised Land are enumerated. Why?

Whether it was our people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land way back then or our spiritual journey from narrowness to Godliness in our own time, we’re to keep God’s blessings of the markers on our path clearly in mind and treasure them forever.

These moments are miraculous and deserve to be as valued long after the journey is complete as they were during its course.

2. Yet, did our people, as recorded in Jeremiah, remember and honor those markers?

No! To the contrary, they seemed prepared to go back to the very place, Egypt, where their ancestors had been held in bondage. “And now what is there for you on the road to Egypt, to drink the waters of the Nile?”

God broke off our yoke, and we pledged not to transgress, “but on every lofty hill and under every leafy tree,” they reclined “as a harlot,” bringing on the most awful consequences.

 

IV. To our great relief and glory, there’s a third aspect in which the two texts resonate of each other.

The haftarah blessedly doesn’t end with the gloom of the pain our forebears experienced as a result of misbehavior in leadership, ingratitude for miracles, and going down wrong paths.

It’s as if those who established this haftarah would not allow us to go away hopeless.

A. Sephardim remember that if we “return,” “remove detestable things” and “do not waver,” and “’swear as the Lord lives,’ in sincerity, justice, and righteousness – Nations shall bless themselves” by us.

B. Ashkenazim add: “If only from now on,” we would call God “My Father,” “You are the master of my youth.”

Today we have both texts in front of us – in one, there’s the hope of approaching the Promised Land in God’s ways, and, in the other, there’s the punishment Jeremiah prophesied for straying from those ways. So, what are we to make of it?

V. Can there be hope again after hope has been lost? What can be done to revive it?

A. First, we have the model of Moses’ leadership. We can lead in our own lives as he did in his. We can learn about vows, fulfill them and lead others to do so, too. We can lead by working with others to reach mutually satisfactory solutions to our problems.

B. We can remember our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And we can, through memory, exhibit gratitude for those and the many blessings that God has bestowed upon us. How very different life can be for the one who is grateful for God’s gifts.

C. And, finally, we can relish and utilize God’s extraordinary gift to us of teshuvah. “If only from now on,” we turn and dedicate ourselves to the ways of Torah, we can, as Rashi teaches, return to our original glory and greatness.

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A Woman of Valor

“A woman of valor who can find? Far beyond pearls is her value…She seeks wool and flax, and her hands work willingly. She is like a merchant’s ships; from afar she brings her sustenance.” Proverbs 31:10, 13-14

 

This week we begin a 3-part series on a truly remarkable character, the woman of valor. With this study, we close out our examination of Proverbs.

What an amazing journey it’s been. We have encountered some of the most valuable wisdom that can be found anywhere. Often, this has been a wisdom that guides us specifically in how we should act in a variety of settings and circumstances. But, even better, it’s been a wisdom that teaches us how to think and how to fashion the best decisions for our actions.

One feature of Proverbs that may be its most extraordinary is the arc that spans from beginning to end. We start with Lady Wisdom, who, as a child and “spokesperson” of God, calls us to follow in her ways. We close the book with the woman of valor, who, as a flesh-and-blood human being, shows us how to live wisely in the real world.

The first thing we learn of this woman we newly encounter in Chapter 31 is that she’s a person of valor whose value is far beyond pearls.

It’s very cool to know that the word translated as valor means much more than that. The Hebrew word is chayil. Yes, it can mean valorous. But it can also mean noble, capable, accomplished, virtuous, wealthy, and strong. Plus, it’s related to a word that means army.

Wow. What do we make of that?

Surely, no one person can be expected to have all those qualities. But a person might be able to have a solid mix of them. So, perhaps we should keep all of them in mind, as a holistic sense of the ideal. In that way, we could endeavor, as best we can, to emulate the qualities of this person Proverbs models as one who lives in wisdom.

Next, we’re taught that being like this woman yields greater value than the most precious material objects in the world. In a sense, then, if we’re motivated to find things of greatest value, we should turn away from the material and seek instead to be like her and be with others who are.

Now, in the text, we begin to see this woman in action. What do we notice first? She seeks wool and flax, and her hands work willingly.

The first part of her work is to obtain the ingredients she and her companions will use. These ingredients are to be of great utility and variety, as are wool and flax. And we presume that since she seeks them out herself, they will also be of high quality.

Isn’t it so, too, that our character traits – and our lives more generally – are largely determined by the elements of which they’re made? One could say that our teachings and our values are our core fibers, and we should seek them out as carefully as does the woman of valor, her wool and flax. As the Malbim teaches, we work willingly and purposefully to weave together “garments” for our souls such that our “attire” is goodness composed of the threads of virtue.

The woman of valor is like merchant’s ships that bring sustenance from afar. What does this mean?

It could mean that she goes to great lengths to provide the best sustenance for her family, both from her estate and beyond.

At a deeper level, it may mean more than physical sustenance. Perhaps she looks, too, for the best ideas and the best influences to nourish her community, and she’s willing and able to travel and trade to bring them home.

In other words, she seeks to “import” wisdom from afar. This could be that she brings to bear in her own world ideas and inspiration from heaven, from God. It may be that she studies sages and wise men and women from far away, both in time and place, and uses their teachings as sustenance for those who live in her midst.

Well, friends, we’ll stop here for now. Next week our heroine will show us how vision, entrepreneurship, business success, and caring for others, including the poor, can go very well together.

See you then!

Duties of the Heart

I believe you’ll find this week’s “coffee with a great sage” to be a real treat.

As fresh and vital as his thinking is today, it’s amazing that the rabbi/philosopher, Bachya ibn Pakuda, lived in 11thcentury Spain. Essentially, he believed that his peers paid too much attention to the outward observance of rules and not nearly enough to the inner ideas and forces that can bring God’s teachings effectively into our lives.

Through Ibn Pakuda’s teachings, we learn how to create within our hearts a greater willingness and joyful readiness to perform life’s duties, especially by serving and loving God.

 

1. “Reflect on God’s greatness, abilities, wisdom, and abundance.

Note man’s weakness and faults…

Discern all the good and kind things the Creator has done for us…

Do all that and…you will realize how obliged we are to serve, revere, praise, acknowledge, and constantly glorify God.”

 

2. God has bestowed many blessings. There are those kindnesses extended to all, such as creation and life itself. Particular peoples have experienced special goodness. God has also granted kindness to us in our families and as individuals. “We are all obliged to serve God according to our position in these four divisions;” as these kindnesses accumulate in our minds, the more we desire to serve Him.

 

3. “”Service” is the act of surrendering that a recipient of a favor exhibits toward his benefactor when he reciprocates to the very best of his ability.”

 

4. That which induces people to serve God can come from external sources (for example, the Bible), or it can be self-induced. Initially, we rely on external direction because  “it is important to employ something that will not depend on…animalistic desires, but will depend instead on your mind freed from the oppression of desires.”

“When the mind is immersed in (the Bible), it becomes active…and enlightened; it eradicates the ignorance that oppresses your soul and prevents you from seeing things for what they are and in proper perspective.”

 

5. A. Torah-induced service to God has its own features and advantages. It is “praiseworthy” in that it guides doing “what one is obliged to do in service to God.” “It applies equally to everyone” and “is very easy to come by.” Also, it “is a preparation for and a preamble to self-induced service.”

Yet, when one is capable of self-induced service, that is “closer to God and more desirable.”

B. Self-induced service is usually done “altruistically” and “in a spirit of soul-generosity and from a desire to serve God as best as possible for the sake of His name that is based on knowledge and understanding.”

Self-induced service “is far more internally rather than externally active,” and it is open to limitless possibilities in that it is not based on a finite number of rules.

 

6. “Self-inducement is God reminding you through your ability to reason how to know Him, and to acknowledge the signs of His wisdom.”

 

7. “What brings you to self-inducement is the realization of all the Creator has implanted within human reason: an admiration for truth…, a preference for righteousness and an aversion to wrongdoing, the rewarding of those who do good with virtue and gratitude, the recompensing of evil with bad and criticism, the ability to live peaceably with others,…and to forgive sinners who truly repent.”

 

8. Reason teaches that we must abandon excessive love of the pleasures of the physical world and our own love of power and arrogance if we are to “draw closer to and approach God” to serve Him.

Detaching from these “reprehensible traits” will “bring you tranquility and will relieve you from the darkness of this cauldron of a world…

Your ultimate destiny is a house of repose.”

 

9. There are worthy levels of serving God, but the highest is of “people who firmly believe in the truth of the Torah as well as what is due them in the way of reward and punishment in both worlds; who force themselves not to be negligent; who are always aware of how indebted they are to the Creator for His great goodness and kindness; and who do not concentrate on reward and punishment, but rush to serve God for the sake of His name alone, to aggrandize Him lovingly and wholeheartedly…”

 

10. “Remember God’s goodness by constantly talking about it and by frequently thanking and praising Him for it in your heart…”

 

11.”Do not think God’s goodness will only persist if you keep making the effort, or that you will lose it once you stop.”

 

12. “Be completely true to God in your intentions and in your surrender to Him.”

 

13. “Empty your heart of the love of the world, and free it from its desires through awareness and understanding, and the love of God will fix itself in your heart and establish itself in your soul as much as you want to and are aware of it.”

 

14. “The love of God is the demonstration of the soul’s longing and inherent affinity for the Creator that gives it the capacity to cling to His supernal light.”

 

15. “Love of the Creator should incorporate your soul, body, possessions…”. “You should be generous in all three…; you should not be frugal in any of them when it comes to fulfilling His will.”

 

16.  One behavior that prevents you from loving God is “hatred for those who love Him and love for those who hate Him…”

 

17. A. “When you are distressed by something worldly, these stanzas will remind you to trust God.”

B. “When you do something that may lead to arrogance or haughtiness, they will remind you to surrender yourself.”

C. “When you neglect things related to…your faith, they will remind you to attach yourself to the service of God.”

 

18. A. “Those who love God…know their God and realize that He is pleased with them, that He guides, directs, and sustains them…”

B. “They praise and thank God for their accomplishments, as He praises them for their efforts and choices.”

C. “They use the knowledge of God in their hearts to serve Him as if they were serving alongside the holy angels in the highest heavens.”

A Venti Chai Latte with Adin Steinsaltz

Intermittently, I have deployed this blog site to display brilliant statements of some of the finest Jewish sages of all time. It is my hope that their ideas will prove to be of great value to all people of faith and that, if manifested in short quotations in the space of less than 850 words, they will be easily accessible, and thus actually read and used.

Today, we are “having coffee” with Adin Steinsaltz – teacher, philosopher, Talmudist, and spiritual mentor. Time magazine calls him a “once-in-a-millenium scholar,” suggesting what I believe to be true: Steinsaltz is probably the most significant Jewish mind of our time.

Here are pearls from The Sustaining Utterance:

 

1. The “speech of God” that “created the heavens” is “not only something that occurred in the past, but is taking place all the time; God speaks always…Divine speech is thus eternal in manifestation and is continually renewed.”

2. According to the Baal Shem Tov, “anyone can be privileged to stand on Mount Sinai and hear the Torah at any moment in his life.” “The world is sustained by the continuous “saying” of the same Ten Utterances forever.”

3. “The Ten Utterances are very inclusive forces creating whole worlds and general essences…Divine Providence is not a general expression for a total state of affairs; it is something very definite that belongs to every created thing in the universe.”

4. “On the one hand we feel God to be very near; on the other, as we see, He is very distant. We call Him Father. We also call Him “Ein Sof” (Infinite). Actually, I need both these…

God is close to us without ceasing…(yet) there is (also) God the Ein Sof, who gives life to all that is. In both cases we address Him with the same “Thou” or “You” – “You” is both the speaker and the speech, the Ten Utterances and the alphabet, Torah and world.”

5. “The question is always being asked of one: “What are you doing at this moment?” It is in this sense that God creates the world and the only one who can answer is man…God can say: “Let there be light!” and man can say: “I don’t want it,” or he can say: “Hear O Israel.”

6. A. “The Torah serves as a map that represents, not an existing reality, but an ideal one. The ideal reality is that which the world aspires to become.”

B. “When I busy myself with Torah, it doesn’t matter what the physical trappings the book are. The essential thing is the word of God that comes through. And as soon as Torah enters my mind, I become united with it.”

7. “There is no study of Torah without some degree of higher consciousness. To a corresponding degree, the Torah is thus internalized. So that Torah is always that which is here called food…It is nourishment in this life and food for the soul in the next life…”

8. “What God demands of us is to reach our own “beyond, our own infinite dimension, and not to reach His infinity…The meaning of the Creation of man and of man’s worship of God…rests on the fact that in spite of all the hiddenness of God, we do have a way of reaching the infinite. And it is even possible, in certain instances, to reach Him precisely within the hiddenness.”

9. “Why should man find God at the time of a crisis, out of the darkness in his life? Because there is a kind of finding that acts in the dark and not in the light.”

10. “Only the Divine is the knower, the known, and the knowledge all in one…God knows with the higher knowledge of “there is none besides Him” and with the lower knowledge of Divine unity, in which everything is filled with Him. He knows everything.”

11. “God is the source, the Creator, of all experience, and something of His essence is contained in all that man does and thinks.”

12. “The fact that we perceive things as tangible solids is a reflection of our own incapacity to see their spiritual essence…Both matter and spirit are modes of Divine projection, emanations of certain aspects of His being.”

13. “For man, wisdom may be considered the beginning of all things, but for God, Wisdom is part of the completed action.”

14. “God is the source of wisdom.” God is also “the source of all these attributes,” (mercy and kindness). “These attributes describe God’s actions and not God Himself.”

15. “God is united with His attributes inwardly as well as externally…In this way Chesed {Loving-kindness) is not at all external, like a hammer in the hands of the worker; it is rather like something that is acting like an instrument for an entity from which it cannot be separated from the will behind it…”

16. In studying how God’s attributes are revealed during the seven days of creation, we can see, among other things, a blending of chesed (loving-kindness) and gevurah (strength and constriction) into tiferet (splendor, harmony, compassion). “Tiferet shows how the world is conducted with righteousness and justice, for righteousness is law, justice is mercy (Tikunei Zohar). Both law and mercy are required for social justice and the ordering of human relations.”

17. “Justice is not merely the exacting of punishment or the passing of a verdict; it is also a matter of weighing all the factors involved, balancing the mitigating evidence, and so on.”

18. The revelation of chesed (loving-kindness) is associated with God’s utterance on the first day, “let there be light.” “In order for chesed to create light, a transformation of Divine power has to take place from the vast inclusiveness of Love to a specific thing, like light – just as any other acts of chesed,” (such as “the unthinking act of handing candy to a child”) “have to be defined in order for them to manifest.”

How the Bible Helps Us Do Politics

“Many solicit a ruler’s favor, but judgment for a person comes from God.” Proverbs 29:26

 

In this last of three Proverbs-based reflections on our society’s problems, I want to focus briefly on our role and responsibility in the world of politics.

First, let’s look at the surface meaning of the verse. We do often turn to powerful officials with requests. Sometimes we seek a favorable legal judgment. Sometimes we seek a favor or an appointment. And sometimes we seek action that squares with our view of how government ought to act, based on our values.

There’s nothing wrong with our petitioning government officials in any of these ways. In fact, often, we’re bound to.

The issue here, fundamentally, is whether our soliciting the ruler’s favor is in sync with God’s expectations. This is so because, for religious people, it is by God’s standards that we are judged in all we do.

Well, then, how do we know what God’s expectations are for us?

People of faith begin with the idea that we get significant direction from God’s words in the Bible. We get further guidance from sages and wise people who have lived, studied, and written about the meaning of these words. Finally, we get instruction from Proverbs and other texts on the ways we can teach and learn the wisdom that helps us in the knowing.

This business of knowing what’s right to do isn’t easy. Sometimes we have to act so quickly we don’t have much time to think about it.  But, generally, we have time before we act, to deliberate and come to understand the wisdom upon which we can base action.

A friend of mine lovingly accused me recently of instinctively urging a “rush to learn” before one starts up a “rush to act.” I plead guilty to that.

Now, what does all this have to do with politics?

Let’s begin, illustratively, with observations I’ve made in recent days about certain unfortunate ways in which the sensitive political matter of immigration has been handled.

Folks from both sides 1) have selectively pulled quotes from the Bible, mostly out of context, to justify their own political viewpoints; 2) have looked at pictures and news stories, sometimes fake, and developed full judgment about what’s right and wrong; 3) have come to black or white, one-sided views that cast the other side as unworthy, even evil; and 4) have either assigned total blame to the other side or grotesquely likened them to the most awful characters in history, such as Hitler and the Nazis.

Where’s the resort in any of this to the Bible’s truths, which, as in Proverbs, are usually complex and multi-dimensional? If the partisans had actually given it an objective look, they would have found a call BOTH to “love the stranger” AND to expect the stranger to live in accord with the community’s rules and laws. Wow. There might actually be some evidence here of the basis for God’s judgment and a path forward for us. But, since the answer is difficult and not fully in tune with any ideology, sadly, I’m guessing few will be interested.

What happened to following Proverbs’ instruction to work diligently to find guiding wisdom? “Heck,” some will say, “I can’t wait to study the issue. I’ve seen a horrible photo, and the time for a righteous statement on social media is NOW. Plus, I already know what’s right!”

And, what happened to the love and respect we’re supposed to show our fellow citizens in political dealings? When one side blames the other entirely for the problem, and the other side compares the one to Hitler, how can the God who has called us “to love your neighbor as yourself” do anything but cringe?

We can be involved in politics; indeed we should be. We should seek what is good and right from government. But, we must do so, willing to take on the demanding work of solving our problems in a just and compassionate manner. We must, also, do so with respect and equanimity for others in the process, including our political opponents.

For it will be then, and only then, as the Proverb teaches, that we will sense God’s favorable judgment and blessing.

Wordsworth’s Most Glorious Verses on Religion

Today we examine beautiful expressions in poetry of the sublime religious views of the fine English poet, William Wordsworth.

You are probably wondering why I’ve chosen Wordsworth. He is neither a Jewish sage nor a scholar, nor a person particularly known for a religious focus in his work. Yet, he is a profound thinker who developed extraordinary religious ideas along his remarkable path, and we have the benefit – in reading him – of understanding how one of the world’s greatest poets expressed such ideas in verse.

I. One of Wordsworth’s first significant explorations of the Divine came in “From Things Eternal.” Here he exquisitely describes God’s eternality and a lovely sense of our nearness to the Divine. Look especially at the poet’s account of the daily miracle by which God restores us upon awakening to the “powers of sense and Reason’s steadfast rule:”

“…Above our human region, or below,

Set and sustained; thou, who didst wrap the cloud

Of infancy around us, that thyself,

Therein, with our simplicity awhile

Might’st hold, on earth, communion undisturbed;

Who from the anarchy of dreaming sleep,

Or from its death-like void, with punctual care,

And touch us as gentle as the morning light,

Restor’st us, daily, to the powers of sense

And reason’s steadfast rule – thou, thou alone

Art everlasting, and the blessed Spirits,

Which thou includest, as the sea her waves:..”

 

II. In the same poem, Wordsworth writes of the Enduring God. Here, pay close attention to Wordsworth’s description of that which endures: “the motions of thy will” and “those transcendent truths of the pure intellect, that stand as laws…even to thy Being’s infinite majesty:”

“For adoration thou endur’st; endure

For consciousness the motions of thy will;

For apprehension those transcendent truths

Of the pure intellect, that stand as laws

(Submission, constituting strength and power)

Even to thy Being’s infinite majesty!”

 

III. The poet succinctly, yet elegantly describes prayer’s power in a poem of self-same name:

“Oh! there is never sorrow of heart

That shall lack a timely end,

If but to God we turn, and ask

Of Him to be our friend!”

 

IV. What is our obligation to God and our fellow human beings? Wordsworth answers: duty! And his characterizations of duty are sublime. While “possessions vanish and opinions change,” and passions “hold a fluctuating seat,” we find comfort and strength in the gift of duty that God grants as an everlasting blessing, “From Things Eternal:”

 “Possessions vanish, and opinions change,

And passions hold a fluctuating seat:

But, by the storms of circumstances unshaken,

And subject to neither eclipse nor wane,

Duty exists; immutably survive,

For our support, the measures and the forms,

Which an abstract intelligence supplies;

Whose kingdom is, where time and space are not.”

 

Also, from “Ode to Duty:”

“Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!

O Duty! if that name thou love

Who art a Light to guide, a Rod

To check the erring, and reprove;

Thou who art victory and law

When empty terrors overawe;

From vain temptations dost set free;

From strife and from despair; a glorious ministry.”

 

V. Nowhere does Wordsworth write more powerfully of how to live true to this call of duty than in the tribute he wrote upon the news of the death of Lord Nelson. (Don’t fret the verses’ length. They’re very accessible.)

“Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he

“Whom every Man in arms should wish to be?

—It is the generous Spirit, when brought

Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought

Upon the plan that pleased his childish thought:

Whose high endeavors are an inward light

That makes the path before him always bright:

Who, with a natural instinct to discern

What knowledge can perform, is diligent to perform, is diligent to learn;

Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,

But makes his moral being his prime care;

Who, doom’d to go in company with Pain,

And fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train!

Turns his necessity to glorious gain;

In face of these ditch exercise a power

Which is our human-nature’s highest dower;

Controls them and subdues, transmutes, bereaves

Of their bad influence, and their good receives;

By objects, which might force the soul to abate

Her feeling, render’d more compassionate;…

 

‘‘Tis he whose law is reason; who depends

Upon the law as the best of friends;

Whence, in a state where men are tempted still

To evil for a guard against worse ill,

And what in quality or act is best

Doth seldom on a right foundation rest,

He fixes good on food alone, and owes

To virtue every triumph that he knows:…

 

“And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws

His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause;

This is the happy Warrior; this is He

Whom every Man in arms should wish to be.”

 

VI. Here is an apt concluding idea from Wordsworth:

“We live by Admiration, Hope, and Love;

And, even as these are well and wisely fixed,

In dignity of being we ascend.”

Our Society’s Problems, Part 2

“Scornful men inflame a city, but the wise turn away wrath.” Proverbs 29:8

 

In this second of a series of blogs on lessons from Proverbs related to our society’s problems, I hope to shed some light on the profound wisdom in this proverb. But, to do so, we need to go deeper into the meaning of certain key words. Be patient. Exploring the vocabulary is a short, but essential detour.

At the outset, we encounter the idea that scornful people inflame a city. Who are these “scornful men?” What are they like? What is meant by the word, “scornful?”

If we were to rely only on the dictionary definition, we might be satisfied thinking merely that these are people who are derisive, contemptuous, snide, or disparaging. Close to that, the Hebrew word, latson, means one who scoffs, mocks, or scorns.

Well – that’s good, but I think it’s thoroughly insufficient for us to garner a proper understanding of what the Bible is worried about here. Indeed, it may lead us in the wrong direction.

There is another prominent place in the Hebrew Bible where we find this word, latson. It’s in Isaiah 28:14-15. Let’s see if we can attain a surer sense of the meaning of “scornful” by looking at these verses.

The prophet here is criticizing those “who rule this people in Jerusalem” for creating “a covenant with death” by which they will be protected from the upcoming scourge by making “a lie their refuge” and “falsehood their hiding place.”

So, based on this account, especially as it’s fleshed out, we shouldn’t be surprised that commentators on Isaiah have come to see scornful people more particularly as those who:

 

  • Are addicted to sophistry and deceit;
  • Are sharp but turn dexterity to cunning and hypocrisy;
  • Are puffed up with false belief in their own wisdom and rightness;
  • Are destructive and excite others to scorn and wickedness;
  • Dazzle others who are less clear sighted;
  • Blind others and inspire them to despise God and ridicule Divine doctrine;
  • Are ingenious in seeking to overturn religion;
  • Hope through witty devices and wicked practices to escape God’s judgment;
  • Have false confidence and vain hopes in their safety and wellbeing; and
  • Imagine their political schemes have given them immunity from the oncoming disaster

 

Now, let’s return to the proverb with this understanding of scornful people in mind. We’re taught next that one destructive deed of such people is to “inflame a city.”

Well – what does that mean?

Interpreting from the root word, puach, “to blow,” we can ponder several possible ideas – it may be to stir up a city, or set it aflame, or turn it into a snare. Many translators have settled on “inflame a city.”

Okay, now we come to that space in the blog where I invite you to think about what all this means to us in our modern society.

I suspect that many of you on the left will rush to assert that these words are perfectly descriptive of the ways of Donald Trump and his “hateful,” “ignorant”, and “insensitive” supporters. I am equally confident that many of you on the right will insist that these verses couldn’t more aptly describe the “irreligious,” “constitution-threatening,” and “culture-diluting” ways of those on the left and their leaders.

In these comments, I do not mean to opine about the relative worthiness of either side’s views. We know that some views are more just; some are less; and many are in the in-between. Further, all of us have, and are entitled to, our own views; I have mine. But, before we rally too boldly to the views of our own group, swearing all would be well with the world if it weren’t for our opponents, let’s take a look at the proverb’s last words: “the wise turn away wrath.”

Those wise in the ways of God do many things, but the teaching here is exclusively about the good work they do to soothe public passions, turn aside anger, bring on calm, and, thus, pave the way for the possibility of consensus, solution, and harmony.

So, instead of standing on the side of our own group too sanctimoniously, perhaps we should seek instead, in our inflamed city, to help turn people away from strife and back to each other. For it will be there that we have the best chance at justice, righteousness, kindness, and mercy.