Words Can Be Treasured Jewels

“Apples of gold in engravings of silver: a word spoken in the right way. A ring of gold and an ornament of fine gold: a wise man giving a rebuke to a listening ear.” Proverbs 25:11-12

Do you recall hearing a word spoken in the right way?

Did you, perhaps young and idealistic, hear President Kennedy speak inspiring words of challenge in his inaugural address? For those who are older, do you remember President Roosevelt comforting a fearful nation with just a few well-spoken words that actually diminished the force of the fear itself? Or, did you hear President Reagan’s touching words of tribute and consolation after the terrible Space Shuttle Challenger disaster?

If you heard these words, you’ve experienced the richness of words spoken in the right way.

You may also be able to bring to mind a sense of the glory of words by remembering what was said in a marriage proposal, during moments of mourning, or at times of encouragement when down or in praise of a deed well done.

Even in the everyday, we can recall instances when a choice of words was so moving it actually changed the mind or turned the heart.

So, yes, a word spoken in the right way can be exceedingly valuable. But what’s the meaning of its comparison to apples of gold in engravings of silver?

Let’s consider eloquent responses from some of the great sages.

First, the comparison simply suggests something of real beauty. The setting of a golden apple against a background of silver is aesthetically pleasing. (Rashi)

The allusion indicates speech that is properly guarded, as golden apples are when encased within a silver sheath. (Ibn Ezra)

Just as the silver sheath allows the gold to shine forth, effective words express real meaning and help reveal true intent. (R’Hirsch)

Also, there’s the idea that the silver setting represents an introduction that compellingly attracts the interest of the listener/reader, and the golden apples are the wisdom of the message itself. (Alshich)

Thus, in verse 11, we learn a keen lesson. But, without verse 12, the more valuable teaching would be missed.

Let’s look at the metaphorical objects that are mentioned in verse 12. A golden ring and an ornament of fine gold would generally be more valued than golden apples engraved in silver because gold is more prized than silver. Thus, the words that are praised in the second verse are more valuable than those in the first.


Why might we treasure a rebuke from a wise person? While a rebuke might feel unpleasant for an instant, nothing compares in unhappiness to being off track and in the wrong. When we’re straying in unproductive and unworthy directions, there’s nothing better than for a loving and wise friend to speak words that steer us back to the right place.

As worthy as this wisdom is, it gets better. While the golden ring is likened to the rebuke, the ornament of fine gold is likened to the “listening ear.” A wise person’s words of rebuke are indeed valuable. But the two jewels together – a wise person’s rebuke and another person’s willingness to hear and heed it – are the most valuable of all.


What We Can’t Know, But What We Can Do

“It is the honor of God to conceal a matter; but it is the honor of kings to search out a matter. The heavens for height, the earth for depth, and the hearts of kings cannot be fathomed.” Proverbs 25:2-3


Wow. Theology, the nature of humanity and the world, and our purpose in life – all are sublimely addressed in a few verses of sacred text. This makes Bible study exciting and worthwhile, don’t you think?

Let’s search for meaning by progressing carefully through these verses.

The first notion is that God’s matters are generally cloaked from us in mystery. Though we often have a sense of God’s attributes and actions, we should be humble in our claims of theological certainty. As to the face and nature of God, God knows, and we don’t. As we learn from Deuteronomy 29:28, “the concealed things belong to the Lord our God.”

Importantly, however, that verse goes on to say “…but those things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever that we may do all the words that we’ve been instructed.” This wisdom is essential for our understanding the next idea in the proverb.

Before we go there, though, let’s clarify the identity of “kings.” Clearly, among other things, the word “kings” means kings. I think it means more. It likely refers as well to those who work in the king’s court. It also has been read to include rabbis who issue “edicts,” as do sovereigns. But, even more, I believe the word could and should be extended to all of us, all who live to extend God’s sovereignty in the world.

We are indeed the “kings” of our own lives. We seek and act on choices, and, thus, like a king, are rulers in our personal realms.

Thus, it is our honor, as the proverb says, “to search out a matter.” In Deuteronomy’s terms, this means we’re to search out God’s revelation so that we may do what we’ve been instructed.

In thinking about the proverb’s second verse, we know there is much we can learn and benefit from science. We can know a lot about the heavens and the earth, as well as the heart of man. But, we cannot reach to the end of those unfathomable territories. I take these limits principally to mean that, out of humility, we should avoid being enslaved by the idea, or governed by the ambition, that we can fully comprehend all such things.

So, where does this leave us?

We cannot know all God’s matters; nor can we really know the heart of others. Therefore, we should avoid excessive use of time, spirit, and resources in believing otherwise.

Rather, it is both our honor and burden to “search out matters” from divinely revealed words to live in accord with God’s Instruction, and, thus, make the world a more righteous, just, and equitable place.

Saving Those Who Are Drawn to Death

“Rescue those who are drawn to death and those who are ready for slaughter, do not stint in helping. For if you say, ‘We did not know this,’ the One Who resides in hearts and protects the soul understands and knows, and will repay according to deeds.” Proverbs 24:11-12


There is much discussion about the identity of “those who are drawn to death,” “ready for slaughter.” Given the recent horror in our own land, we, too, might be curious.

Some believe the phrase refers to people who are being led to judicial execution. This is possible, but likely wrong. If this were about the unjustly judged, the writer would have likely been more explicit in expressing moral indignation. If this were about the justly judged, the writer would have not encouraged action against a sanctioned penalty.

So, who are these vulnerable people whose fate should concern us so? It certainly could be any innocents whose lives are physically put in peril by evildoers.

But, could it be more?

We get a clue from the Hebrew word for death, mavet. This is the same word Moses used when he proclaimed in his final oration, “I have set before you life and death.” “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to Him.”

In this reading, the people in peril are those who abandon the traditions that support life, and thus are drawn to the death Moses warns against.

What sort of death is on Moses’ mind? It could be physical death. It could also be emotional or spiritual death.

Perhaps one who is not rooted in the Ultimate Source of love, compassion, and righteousness may feel such an aloneness, as to be drawn to death – one’s own, as well as that of others.

Tragically, many who live outside of justice and mercy often deliver death to others and experience death themselves.

The proverbial wisdom is that we should do everything that is reasonably possible to rescue and deliver all such people from death.

The final idea in the verses is the most haunting: we can’t act toward the march of death as if “we did not know this.” The One Who resides in our hearts knows the truth. So, while God is watching over us, let’s ask and answer these questions:


  • Do we even see the problems that plague our community with immorality, breakdown, and detachment that are consonant with death?
  • If so, do we work honestly and vigorously with others to deliver those drawn to death away from the slaughter?
  • Or, do we ignore it and let the march to death continue?
  • And, after the carnage, do we mostly play politics with it all?

Straining to Get Rich

I’m now teaching a six-part seminar at UT SAGE on wisdom sayings from the Jewish tradition. The focus this week is on work – ways in which it can be highly virtuous as well as ways in which it can be harmfully distorted. Love of work is essential, the wisdom teaches, but we must be careful that that love doesn’t seductively morph into something else that is damaging.

Here’s a proverb to consider.

“Do not strain to get rich. Leave off your staring! If you but let your eye fly on it, it is no more, for it will surely make itself wings like eagle’s and fly off to the sky.” Proverbs 23:4-5

Does this proverb forbid or discourage wealth or attainment of riches?

I don’t see that it does. Work can be appropriately fruitful in many ways, including the earning of material reward.

The concern seems instead to be with “straining” and “staring.” First, what is meant by straining to get rich?

It could be what we do when we exhibit an unhealthy devotion of excessive time or effort to the attainment of riches. Our enterprise then becomes less about the intrinsic value, joy, and yield of work, and more about an obsession with the desire for riches.

So, what’s “staring?”

Staring at riches suggests being fixated on them. Such fixation is wrong because just as easily as wealth comes along, it can be lost. Even if excessive wealth remains, its value tends to be more ephemeral than enduring. This is what is meant, I think, by likening the outcome of obsession with riches to something that will “make itself wings like eagle’s and fly off to the sky.”

Instead of staring and straining to get rich, we should understand that that which deeply satisfies is the feeling of a job well done; a contribution of work, often done with others, that enables and ennobles; and accomplishments through service that add to our ongoing wellbeing and that of our community. For it is there that we find true treasure.

A Religious Perspective on the Promise and Peril of Technology

(These are introductory remarks at a program of the Austin Jewish Men’s Group, featuring major technological advances in our city and nation.)


Good evening, everybody. I’m delighted to be here with you at what promises to be one of the most exciting JAMen programs of the year.

We’re going to consider tonight many aspects of the technology age in which we live. We’ll do it in one of the most techno-sophisticated cities in the world. And we’ll do it, guided by some of the most accomplished and visionary technology leaders anywhere.

I want to use my 4 minutes to set the table – Jewishly – for our discussion. For, as active as we are in the business of things, we also like to think about the ethics and the right and wrong of things. We’ll do both tonight.

Let’s begin by reflecting briefly on how far and fast technology has developed just in our time. Heck – when I was born we didn’t even have black and white TV!

It’s been a long and dramatic road to here. And, as amazing as the change has been, it just keeps accelerating, so much so that it now touches all parts of life, often profoundly.

For our discussion tonight, here’s the main question I want to pose: is this increasingly rapid grounding of our lives in technology necessarily and fully good for us?

Our speakers will mainly paint a picture of technology’s yield of social good. And I believe we’ll like that picture. Indeed, as for me, I rely heavily on, and marvel at, technology.

But do we pay a price? Is there bad along with the good? Do we fail at essential things, while we have this success?

On the positive side: do we have greater and faster access to information than ever before? No doubt.

Do we have entertainment options the likes of which no one in history has had? No doubt.

Does technology provide incredibly valuable assistance to doctors and other professionals in making life better in many important ways? No doubt.

So, why am I worried, and why do I want you to be worried?

Let’s take a quick look at Proverbs.

Here we’re taught what real success in life involves. It comes down to how we develop and use key personal attributes.

For example, garnering knowledge, cleverness, and strategies to navigate one’s way in the world are taught to be important. As to these, a smart, steady use of technology can surely help.

BUT, wait. Here’s what’s prized most:

1. Proverbs teaches that our key aim in life is to create a world of justice, righteousness, and equity. Does technology help, hurt, or make any difference in that endeavor?

2. The essential tool we need to that end is wisdom. And wisdom, unlike simply knowing information, comes from understanding what is right and good and having the capacity to do it. Does technology help or hurt in garnering wisdom?

3. Crucial to applying wisdom is the knowledge and use of discipline. Does technology help or hurt in the acquisition of discipline?

4. Finally, doing all this requires that we can discern from information the understanding needed for wisdom. Does technology help or hurt in the acquisition of that discernment?

You may believe technology is neutral in all this; it’s simply up to us to decide how to use it.

You may believe technology is uniformly positive.

Or you may believe that the dazzle of technology, as well as the distractions and the places it takes us on its “magic carpet ride,” could actually diminish our will to be wise, disciplined, and discerning. We may be able to see more and be everywhere with everyone all the time but, fundamentally, understand less and be more alone.

I don’t know how you come out on these questions. I’m not sure how I do. But, happily our sponsors have only hired me to ask the questions.

So – with my job done – I’ll just take my seat, join you, and enjoy the show!

The Rich and the Poor Meet

“The rich person and the poor person meet: the Lord is Maker of both.” Proverbs 22:2


I have special affection for this proverb. After studying it, you may, too.

On one level, it teaches an important Biblical lesson. The rich and the poor have it in common that God is the Maker and Parent of both. As a result, God has an interest in the welfare of both and has the expectation that each will have such an interest in the other.

But the proverb asks us to go deeper. For one thing, the inquiring mind asks: where do rich and poor persons meet, and what happens when they do?

They could meet in church, synagogue, or mosque. They could meet at a family gathering or at a town hall convening. They could meet when the poor person asks the rich person for help, or when the rich person seeks to hire the poor person.

The rich person could become poor; the poor person could become rich. And the two then meet in opposite roles. The rich person could become dispossessed in another country and be without resources and support, thus meeting “the poor,” through imposed poverty. The materially poor person could feel rich through the experience of productive work and contentment.

The two could meet in a conflict, involving clashing interests, perhaps in a political or legal dispute. Or the two could meet in accord, when they join together in a common cause. We certainly saw this when the nation faced depression, when we went to war against Hitler, when we were attacked on 9/11, and when we have faced the consequences of natural disasters.

So, rich and poor meet in these and other ways. What’s important in their meeting? And what’s the importance of the connective tissue in God’s making them both?

First, once we see that God has made us all, we more easily understand that God cares for us all. If God makes us all, cares for us all, and loves us all, it then follows that God would expect us to respect and love others as we love ourselves. Truly, then, if the rich and poor, at the extremes of the social order, can love each other, it must be that much easier for us in the in-between.

Second, this teaching causes us to see that what might appear as significant differences are mostly insignificant. The significance is in our sharing a place with God, not in our differences in wealth.

To the extent there are differences in material condition, the rich are taught that they could easily be walking in the others’ shoes and that they should make special efforts to provide for the poor. This certainly is of greater value to the God that made them both than the rich exploiting the poor or making “another million.”

The poor are taught that mutuality of interest and caring, rather than envy and anger, is expected of them, too – for their own sake, for the sake of others, and for the sake of shared community.

At its most basic, the proverb teaches how important it is that the rich and poor, indeed all of us, simply meet. If we don’t meet, we can ignore; we can write off; we can hold others in distrust or hate. We can even try to ignore the fact that God made us all.

So, from God’s perspective, through meeting, humankind can knit itself together, each with the other, and with God. Then, in that felicitous environment, achieving the aim of Proverbs – to know and live together in righteousness, justice, and equity – becomes possible.

Showing Care in Judgment

Today our study will involve these verses. Read them carefully.


“A person’s behavior may be tortuous and strange, even while his deeds are pure and upright.”

“The way of the guilty is devious, but the conduct of the innocent is upright.”

“The way of a strange person is fraudulent, even as the work of the pure is right.”


Do you agree with some or all of these pieces of wisdom? Which is right; which is wrong?

But, before you answer, I want to let you in on a secret. These are not three separate verses in Proverbs. Rather, they’re different translations of the same verse, Proverbs 21:8! Pretty amazing, huh?

How can this be? And, what lessons do we learn from it?

First, Hebrew words are often so rich in their many meanings that they can lead us in several directions.

Second, the placement of Hebrew words itself can create multiple possibilities.

Third, as a result, proverbs are structured to open us up to several, often seemingly conflicting, insights.

As we have seen, truth is often not found in simple or one-dimensional statements, but rather in a mix of several complex assertions. In this way, proverbs frequently help us shape our sense of truth by revealing many perspectives all at once, forcing us to consider them together, and then, through a reconciliation of ideas, putting us on the path to wisdom.

So, what do we make of the special challenge in this week’s proverb, with its diverse translation possibilities?

First, the easiest truth, I think, comes from the second translation. The guilty do tend to be crooked, and the innocent tend to be upright.

But we see that the word for guilty can also mean strange. Isn’t it so that we tend to think of the strange as not only different, but also bad, or guilty.

Doesn’t this “either/or” possibility itself caution us to refrain from reaching too quick a conclusion? We may think that the strange is crooked, and it may be. But it may not be. Further, the word may be referring to the ways of any person, not to strangers at all. So, we must be careful in judgment.

What I love the most, though, is where the first reading leads us. It suggests that we should avoid judging people as doers of bad deeds simply because their ways are tortuous or strange.

Making this even more complex is the fact that the word for tortuous (implying merely one who twists and turns in certain ways) can also mean something much worse – crooked. So, which is it? If it’s merely tortuous, and the person, though strange, is actually the doer of upright deeds, how wrong it would be for us to judge the person in negative, hurtful ways.

At bottom, I think the translation complexities here are intended, in part, to teach us we must show the greatest care in judging others.

Given the awful divisions in our polity these days, this seems like advice we all should consider: judge with care, rightness, and love, as we would want others to judge us.