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.

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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.

Shining in Life

“Bad, bad!” the buyer says, but when he goes away, then he boasts. Proverbs 20:14

 

I love this proverb for several reasons. First, its surface meaning is wise and well worth pondering. Second, it has other possible meanings, which, in certain ways, conflict with the surface meaning. And, third, perhaps most valuable, we can find a still deeper meaning that yields the richest lesson.

How often does a simple reality play out when people go shopping? Some try hard to lower the price of what they want to buy, often protesting to the seller that even a lowered price is too much to pay. Yet, after they buy, they promote a narrative in which they forever brag about the great bargain they struck.

It’s funny. Sellers will use this fact-of-life understanding to nudge a reluctant buyer into the transaction. “You’ll be so glad you did it. Your friends will be amazed!”

Another very different reading suggests that the proverb rather means to criticize deceit, to say that we ought to be consistently true, that we ought to call what’s good, good, and what’s deficient, deficient.

Let’s now look deeper. Could it be that the proverb teaches more generally about life? At the start of most experiences, we have a hard time. It’s bad, one could say, because it’s difficult. But, if we persevere and overcome the difficulties, we can prevail, and go on to the next stage, with a sense of completion and satisfaction.

In other words, in much of life, we struggle. It’s bad when we don’t yet quite get it right. It’s tough when the going isn’t so good. Indeed, often, the bad feeling is essential to the struggle to attain the good. If we stick to it and find our way, we usually can garner wisdom, and we can achieve accomplishment. Then we’re proud. “We did it,” we acclaim.

Further, we’re “buyers” in more ways than when we shop. We buy in all the transactions of life. We “buy” in all we do by looking, deciding, and selecting.

Feeling agitated when things aren’t right, we push in the best ways we can to make it better. When we do so, we’re blessed with a sense of plentitude and gratitude.

The root word, in Hebrew, for boast, which is used in the proverb, is halal. This can also mean, shine. And that, I think, is what it best means here. When we’ve done our part and made the improvements we can make, we depart from transactions, maybe even life itself, shining.

Proverbial Warnings Against Excessive Drinking

“Wine is a mocker and beer is rowdy, and no one who goes astray in them will become wise.” Proverbs 20:1

 

The Biblical view of alcoholic drink has different dimensions, but, at bottom, there is a deep concern.

On the one hand, wine, for example, has a special place in sacred experience. Further, it is seen as a gift from God that brings pleasure. “He makes…plants for people to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts…” Psalms 104:14-15

Yet, at the same time, the wisdom in Proverbs expresses profound worries and powerful warnings about excessive drinking. How and why?

The first literary device in this proverb is to personify wine and beer. It’s as if they are people who are impudent and brawling. Seeing it in that way, we realize we wouldn’t want to be with people who scorn us and are boisterous. And, we wouldn’t want to act in those ways ourselves.

More interesting, perhaps, is the interpretation of certain sages that wine actually is a character that scoffs at us. This could be a bit dismaying if we believed that wine (as a character) is ready to laugh at us when we slip up and go beyond its proper use. What a short step it is to go from the sacred and the happy to that place where we’re mocked in foolishness and indiscretion.

The second clause expands on this very point. Once we go astray from proper use, once we err and regularly get drunk, we are incapable of being wise. Whether it’s because of the habit of drinking or the ways in which we behave when we’re drunk, we can no longer spend the time and effort it takes to live decently and productively in the manner of a wise person.

Further, we see in Proverbs 21:17 that “the lover of wine…will not grow rich.” Note that the language warns against loving wine, not using it for special purposes or occasional pleasure.

If one loves (and drinks) wine too much, one hasn’t the time, energy, or discipline to engage in the habits of work that bring on success. The wisdom in Proverbs 23:21 sees an even greater risk – “the guzzler will be poor.”

Indeed there is an entire maxim in Proverbs that warns against drunkenness – 23:29-35. If the book has pulled any punches at all in the earlier chapters, it no longer does so here. Now we see a powerful and poetic account of the dangerous allure of too much drinking and its terrible, inevitable outcome.

Though wine “glows red,” “gives its gleam” in the glass, and “flows down smoothly,” “in the end, it bites like a serpent, and spews venom like a viper.” When fully under its influence, “your eyes will see strange things, and your heart will express turbulence.”

The worst of it is that even if beaten and battered physically or emotionally by the experience, the drunkard will answer the question, what will happen “when…I wake up,” with this response, “I’ll go and look for more.”

Wow. Have you ever seen it better expressed?

Three Wise New Year’s Resolutions

 

I wanted to find wisdom in the Proverbs this year that could serve as the foundation for New Year’s resolutions. So, I looked at the verses that were next in line in my study, and, voila, I found these three. The good Lord responds when we call!

 

A. “The understanding of a person helps defer anger, and overlooking an offense can be one’s splendor.” Proverbs 19:11

 B. “One who keeps the command keeps life/soul, while one who despises the ways will die.” Proverbs 19:16

 C. “He who is gracious to the poor lends to God, and God will repay him for what he has given.” Proverbs 19:17

 

Let’s take a look.

A. Of special value to me is Proverbs 19:11. The Hebrew word, sekel, could mean understanding, discretion, insight, or good sense. Whichever way we read the word, we are taught to be patient when having an experience that tends to bring forth anger. Then, we are to defer the anger.

I like that and find it helpful. At the very moment something happens that tends to make me angry, I need to stop immediately and let patience take hold before I react in any palpable way. While anger may come along later, at least patience has had the effect of deferring it.

Then, the second clause kicks in. To the extent that I can overlook what was done that provoked the anger, I may be able to avoid anger altogether. In fact, if I can bring myself to overlook the offense, I might shield both the offender and me from all negative emotions and move forward in peace. Wow. If I could pull that off, the proverb would be exactly right – it truly would be splendid.

 

B. In the second Proverb, we are taught that there is a timeless wisdom found in the mitzvot (Biblical commandments). By keeping to God’s direction, we profoundly guard both our lives and our souls. But, by disregarding those ways, we diminish and lose all that is life, both here and forever.

One idea we tend to miss on the surface here is that the Hebrew word, mitzvah, can be seen both as God’s direction/command as well as the sort of practical precepts that the sages teach in support of the Divine command. Therefore, we should also cherish all such teachings that point us Godward.

 

C. The third proverb beautifully makes the case that God has a special interest in the wellbeing of the poor. This Divine stake is so pervasive that God wants us to care, too. Indeed our acting on behalf of the poor is seen as a sort of loan to God, a loan from which, in some way, we’ll be repaid. Whatever form that payment takes and whether it will it be in the here and now or in the World to Come – we certainly have the sense that it includes God’s love, the most precious consideration we could ever receive.

 

So, here are three suggested New Year’s resolutions we’ve gleaned from these proverbs:

1) Be patient when someone offends. Defer anger. And try to overlook the underlying offense altogether, if possible;

2) Constantly be mindful of God’s directions, and endeavor to do them. Regularly study and follow those teachers who are wise in God’s ways; and

3) Look frequently for ways to help God help those in need, knowing such efforts are seen as “loans” to God, with the promise of the most wonderful repayment.