Handling the Most Important Work of Our Lives

“Iron yahad to iron; so a man yahad with the penai of his fellow.” Proverbs 27:17

I know. You must be asking: what the heck is he doing with the words of the verse? Two non-English words are used and italicized. Why? What does it mean?

Here’s the story. The Hebrew word, yahad, has several different meanings. And the use of each gives the proverb an entirely different meaning. To add to the complexity, this is also true with the Hebrew word, penai. The really cool part is that each resulting meaning is wonderful and has great value. In my view, this aspect of Proverbs – the capacity of certain verses to have many but different meanings – is one of the Book’s greatest attractions.

Let’s see how.

One meaning of yahad is “joins” or is “together.” So, we learn that just as iron joins to iron, a person joins with the face of his/her fellow.

We see this powerful idea expressed in many places throughout the Bible.

God meets Moses panim el panim, face to face. In other words, Moses sees the Divine attributes, and God sees in Moses human ways and capacities. Through this encounter, we find the essential basis for relationship.

Isn’t this true as well when we encounter each other? One could say that Jacob encountered both God and Esau in this way on that fateful day of wrestling. Looking into the face of another is indeed like looking into the face of God.

It is this relational reality, I think, that forms the basis of Martin Buber’s magnificent thinking about I-Thou. We must live true to the ideal that we see and act toward each other, Subject to Subject, as if we are relating to the Divine in each other.

So, back to the proverb, just as appropriate as it is for iron to join with iron is our joining with the face of our fellows, through relating to each other, panim el panim.

However, other interpreters see yahad as rooted in chadad, that is, “sharpens.” Here, we would then have: just as iron sharpens iron (as a knife sharpens another knife), a person sharpens the face of his/her fellow.

Since face has also been interpreted as “wits,” this verse could be teaching us that just as iron can be used to sharpen iron, we can, through wisdom, sharpen each other’s wits to lead better lives, by, for example, living truer to God’s ethical expectations.

Or, as R’ Hirsch teaches, it could simply be that our thinking is sharpened through the exchange of thoughts with others. One who relies only on oneself is likely to formulate erroneous ideas or simply be stagnant in thought. Thus, we could be taught here that just as it is better to have a sharpened knife, it is better to have a mind that is sharpened by dialogue in study with others.

Let me tickle you with another possibility.

Some sages, looking at the use of the root word, chadad, in Habakkuk 1:8, see it as to be “fierce.” This may be especially interesting, given the fact that the “face” in Lamentations 4:16 appears angry. So, it could be: just as iron can make iron fiercer, a person’s anger can kindle the anger of his fellow. It is human nature to respond to anger with anger. (Meiri)

Wow. How do we wrap this up? Are we just to leave the study, sated but confused? Or, should we see the experience simply as having gotten five pieces of wisdom for the price of one?!

Or, based purely on the fact that we’ve been given the possibility of so many fine interpretations, is there a special gem we shouldn’t miss?

Perhaps it would be this: Just as we are to show great care in the many ways we handle powerful metals, we should be diligent in the diverse ways we face the most important work of our lives – handling our relationships with each other, and with God.

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