“She arises while it is yet night, and gives food to her household and a portion to her maidens. She envisions a field and buys it; from the fruit of her handiwork she plants a vineyard…She stretches out her palm to the poor, and extends her hands to the destitute.” Proverbs 31:15-16, 20
Proverbs, as we have seen over many weeks, is essentially a book that speaks of the utter importance of wisdom in our tradition. Arching over the text is a magnificent span between Lady Wisdom at the beginning and the Woman of Valor at the close – a trajectory tying the tales of two women to our understanding of deep truths.
It’s noteworthy that although there are characterizations of wisdom goddesses in mythology in the context of other wisdom traditions, we see something extraordinary in the Bible, in the special accounts of these two women and their bookending such a remarkable complex of wisdom.
Let’s recall the basic flow of Proverbs. First, the idealized Lady Wisdom calls us to live in God’s wisdom. Then, a multitude of wisdom sayings are presented. And, finally, at the end, the Woman of Valor – a model, flesh-and-blood woman – manifests in real life the ways of this wisdom.
Last week, when first introduced to the Woman of Valor, we learned how important it is to find and use the finest ingredients in our work. This may relate to the material elements of what we make, such as the components of clothes, but it may also apply to that which comprises the stuff of spirit and ethics.
As the Malbim teaches, it is our duty principally to fashion a certain type of “attire,” which means, more deeply, a goodness, which is composed of the threads of virtue.
Next, we learned that the Woman of Valor is like merchant’s ships that bring sustenance from afar. Such ships convey the supplies of physical sustenance. But, metaphorically, they also represent the means by which the best ideas and influences are brought to nourish us in God’s ways.
This week, a new idea appears: the Woman of Valor rises early to do this work of nourishing others. She firmly believes no time can be lost in tackling her responsibilities; rather, available time must be used maximally.
It’s as if she understands one key aspect of being created in God’s image. If the Great Creator must always be vigilant in sustaining those in Divine care, the Woman of Valor believes she, too, should constantly be about the task of caring, at least as much as is humanly possible.
Beyond sustaining others in the present, though, she also prepares for the future. She imagines oncoming needs, and she strives to meet them by looking for a good field, buying it, and planning its productive cultivation as a vineyard.
Just as the seeds of fruit, properly planted and sustained, will lead to growing trees that will enable the production of fruit for the future; the seeds of this woman’s vision, work, skill, and prudent management will yield over time the sweet, sustaining fruit of a healthy profit.
What’s the purpose of the profit? We can assume, in part, that it will be to support her household and the ongoing enterprise of the field and the vineyard. But, actually, the first thing we read explicitly is that the Woman of Valor stretches out her palm to the poor, and extends her hands to the destitute.
Does the Bible oppose profit? The account of the Woman of Valor clearly answers, no. But, can we be selfish with our profits? Are they to be ours, without further expectations? The answer again is clearly, no.
That so much attention is paid to these issues here and elsewhere in Proverbs should tell us of their significance. Our tradition teaches that we should value work and strive for success, while knowing that we’re primarily to be stewards of the fruit of that success.
Hands that profit should be hands that help.