Why Proverbs Worries So About Our Being Sluggards

“The sluggard’s path is like a hedge of thorns, while the way of the upright is smoothed down.” Proverbs 15:19


I know of no pattern of behavior that causes more concern in Proverbs than that of sloth and laziness. We find it throughout the Book. Let’s explore.

First, in 15:19, what does it mean that a sluggard’s path is like a hedge of thorns?

For starters, a lazy person is one, metaphorically, who is prone to avoid the work of tending to one’s path, thus allowing it to become overcome by wild growth, including thorns. This “path” could be read as one’s house, one’s job, one’s relationships, indeed one’s life.

What are the consequences of our path becoming “like a hedge of thorns?”

Walking down such a path would be slow, difficult, and painful. Ironically, then, the sluggard who wants life to be easy makes it harder. Negligence, thus, creates a further barrier – through the mess of the thorns – for the sluggard to have a clear path forward.

The burden of clearing away the thorns is real enough. But, worse, the sluggard often will exaggerate the problem in order to justify the “impossibility” of overcoming it. As an example, in a burst of stalling imagination, “the sluggard may say, ‘There’s a lion outside! I’ll be killed in the public square!’” Proverbs 22:13

All of this proves exhausting to the already exhausted sluggard who becomes even more inclined to “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest.” This, then, results in the ultimate product of laziness: “poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.” Proverbs 24:33-34

Yet, for the upright one who works hard, the path is actually easier. It is smoothed down, made plain. The Hebrew word is selulah. Beautifully, identically rooted verbs are used in Isaiah 57-62, to express God’s promise to cast up the people and make smooth the highway for their return from exile.

So, while the sluggard wishes for the smooth road, the diligent is the one who finds it. Even more, it is the diligent who, as repairer of broken walls and restorer of streets with dwellings, brings the smooth road to others.

Surely, this wisdom is as apt for us in our own time as it was for our forebears. So, set the alarm, and snap to it!

Happiness in Marriage

It’s wonderful to be with all of you at another fantastic JA Men’s dinner, and, with our speaker, it’s great once again to have a doctor in the house!

Dr. Scott Haltzman, I know, will speak wisely on what research and therapeutic practice say about being a happily married man. We very much look forward to his remarks.

I’m here to share – in less than three minutes – some reflections on what our Jewish tradition teaches about being happy in marriage.

To start, for us Jews, as you know, the idea of “being happy” is a complex and seemingly uncertain thing.

Those of us who have had good Jewish mothers were rarely ever allowed to be simply happy. Happiness, for us, came mostly by being good and dutiful, especially by listening to AND following her Mommilies! We were prepared to expect something less carefree and less easygoing than that of many of our friends.

Given this background, we shouldn’t be surprised when we look in the Bible for models of happy marriages, we DON’T find the simple and chirpy. What we find are several examples of meaningful marriages that foster a joy grounded in living true to our strongest principles.

The one I want to hold up tonight is that of Isaac and Rebecca.

Since I only have two minutes left, I will just highlight what I admire so much in them.

1. First, I love how much thought and spirit Abraham invested in Isaac’s getting a good wife. Indeed, securing the right marriage partner for his son was hugely important for Abraham in his final years.

2. Second, I’m moved by what impressed Abraham’s servant most about Rebecca when he first saw her – her kindness.

Perhaps that’s a big lesson for us, too: isn’t kindness a fundamental cornerstone of a happy marriage?

3. Third, there’s love. I know there are “sexier” shows in movies and on TV, but, frankly, I’m pretty turned on by the account of Rebecca’s meeting Isaac in Genesis 24. The steamy stuff here isn’t as explicit. But, it’s very much there, and it takes place as part of a powerful love.

4. Isaac and Rebecca did have differences, but that, too, I think, can be a sign of a healthy marriage. And, as we husbands know, when we differ with our wives, she is mostly right and should generally get her way! I’m not sure God would have given us the mission we ultimately inherited, had Esau been allowed to win out.

5. Both Rebecca and Isaac showed a commitment to common enterprise through caring deeply about their sons, even in the face of failings and risk. Both sought Jacob’s safety, chastening, and ultimate success. And, though we often don’t read the text carefully enough to see it, both worried about Esau’s choices, and Isaac wished deeply for reconciliation between Jacob and Esau.

6. After wrestling, Jacob and Esau did achieve some of this hoped-for reconciliation, certainly enough for them to come together later to bury their father.

7. In the end, we see something that creates perhaps the deepest happiness, and that is, through pain and difficulty, the passing on of real meaning and blessing from generation to generation. This extended all the way from Isaac’s restoring his father’s wells through Jacob’s fulfilling the vision that Rebecca saw with God – the establishment of a people and the earliest beginnings of Israel.

We all might not achieve full, conventionally happy marriages. Indeed some of us aren’t even in marriages. But the stories in our Bible, such as those of Isaac and Rebecca, do show us, in our relationships, how we can find our way to living true to principle and purpose. We see how such living makes us truly and deeply happy.

Well – those are some thoughts from our ancient tradition. Let’s see how well they square with the best of modern practice. I can’t wait!

There’s Joy, and Then There’s JOY

Depending on the translation, Proverbs 14:13 can be:


“Even in merriment a heart may hurt, and the outcome of pleasure is sadness.” OR

“Even in laughter the heart may be sorrowful, and the end of that mirth is heaviness.” OR

“Even with laughter, the heart aches, and its end is that joy turns to sorrow.”


What do we learn from this proverb?

It seems that the first lesson must be that translation matters a lot. The meaning is very different from one translation to the other.

One substantive takeaway may be that there is often a touch of sadness in laughter. The poignant image of the tears of a clown who brings us laughter is a touching expression of this truth. Additionally, certain pleasures, even joys, don’t last forever, but rather end, apparently as, or replaced by, sadness.

The translations differ on whether the turn away from joy to sadness is inevitable, or merely possible. If the latter, we are to be aware that sorrow may lie around the corner. If the former, we face a difficult-to-believe condition: “the outcome of pleasure is sadness.”

The verb does suggest inevitability. Yet, the writer(s) of Proverbs knew the Bible. So, I like the idea of the latter translations that there is a type of mirth or joy that turns to sorrow, and, implicitly, one that does not. In other words, there may be a deeper joy that does not disappear amidst the normal swings of life.

Surely, there are different causes of joy (simcha, in Hebrew). Some are perhaps pleasant, but ephemeral. When the laughter associated with them stops, “the end of that mirth” may be heaviness or sorrow.

Yet, some causes of joy are enduring in that they produce a lasting happiness. And from such happiness comes a rejoicing (yismechu) that has a reviving and saving effect. This is most certainly not the laughter of cheap merriment or the joy of temporary pleasures.

So, what are they? What causes a sure laughter and profound joy?

According to the Psalmist, it is when we live in ways with others that bring about the meeting of kindness and truth, and the kissing of righteousness and peace. It is then that we have hope of enduring joy: “Gladden (sameach) the soul of Your servant for unto You, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.”

The 25 Cubic Inches That Concern God Greatly

Perhaps there is no theme in Proverbs that is more emphasized than the importance of regulating our speech.

“There is one whose speech is like a sword’s stabs, but the tongue of the wise is a balm.” Proverbs 12:18

“He who watches his mouth guards his life. He who opens wide his lips – disaster is his.” Proverbs 13:3

“The righteous man hates a deceitful word, while the wicked man will be ashamed and disgraced.” Proverb 13:5

What do we learn from these proverbs?

First, we see the tremendous capacity both for good and bad in the space of the roughly 25 cubic inches of our body that constitute the mouth.

The first proverb suggests, at least on the surface, that the use of the mouth can bring about the greatest harm, yet it can also cause the greatest benefit. We see this idea expressed through the contrast between words that have the damaging effect of a sword’s stabs and words that soothe like a balm.

Ah, but as we have learned, a proverb can carry multiple meanings.

The reference to the sword’s stabs could actually be understood in different ways: one, in which words are harmful and wrong; and, yet another, in which the painful words could be either the deserved and/or the natural consequence for foolishness and bad behavior.

We should also note that the Hebrew word, marpeh, means cure as much as it means balm. So, the proverb could be endorsing as wise the application, when needed, of tough medicine as a remedy, in lieu of, say, the softer touch of balm.

Regardless of which meaning we adopt, we should agree with the basic wisdom here: the words we speak matter greatly and can make a significant difference.

The new idea in the second proverb is the importance of guarding the mouth, being careful in judgment about speaking at all, and, when we speak, the words we use.

Life is at stake in speech. So are soul, heart, and emotions. Think of times in your life or in history when a crucial outcome was determined totally by the words that were spoken.

It’s not for no reason that the US Office of War Information made posters in World War II warning that “loose lips sink ships.”

Finally, the third proverb adds the idea that since the righteous listener hates lying, those who lie will be ashamed and disgraced. Is the righteous listener, God? Is the righteous listener a follower of God’s ways? I believe the proverb challenges us, as does the whole Book of Proverbs, to speak truly, wisely, and with good judgment, as if the answer to both questions is yes.