How to Fail, How to Win

 

“Without strategy a people will fall, while there is victory in a multitude of counselors.” Proverbs 11:14

 

Generally, that sounds right. But can the Hebrew help us understand what this proverb teaches at a more profound level?

At the outset, we encounter the word, tachbulot, which is often translated as strategy or counsel. But, since we’re taught the consequences for a people without it are severe, we should strive to attain the best understanding of tachbulot we can.

This virtue is among the key attributes/skills discussed in the Prologue. What do we learn there? It is about strategy, yes. But it’s more. It’s also a sophisticated skill that gives direction and design to deliberation, planning, and execution.

Curiously, the word, tachbulot, has a kinship to the Hebrew words for sailor (hobel) and rope in a ship (hebel). Could it be that we’re talking about a discreet skill, that is, in good part, learned, and that involves discernment in how successfully to steer or navigate, as we would a course in life?

Even more, the proverb is teaching us about a very important and specific skill the people (including its leaders and defenders) require to guide them in order to survive.

I’ll refrain here from taking sides in matters of modern day politics and culture. But let’s do put this question on the table for consideration: to what extent do we risk failing as a people when our leaders and we lack the essential skill of tachbulot?

That should keep us up at night.

We see in the second part of our teaching the promise of victory if we follow a multitude of counselors (and counseling) that are imbued with virtues from Proverbs.

Intuitively, and historically, we know the soundness of this advice. Yet, in the criteria we use to select those who counsel, we too seldom prize wisdom and understanding, judgment and tachbulot.

If we’re to win, we must turn back to the good sense of our tradition.

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Be Like the Ant Instead!

“Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to those who send him.” Proverbs 10:26

 

One of the prominent worries of Proverbs is directed to the ways of the sluggard.

This is easily understood. A sluggard is one who is slothful and lazy and, even worse, a shirker or a ne’er-do-well. Proverbs encourages us to be practitioners, to the contrary, of diligence, toil, and achievement – all, in wisdom’s direction.

The proverb we consider today teaches both about the harm the sluggard does and the effect of that harm on others. Let’s take a look.

First, there is a simile of the sluggard’s ways to the effect of vinegar on teeth. Acidic substances like vinegar damage the tooth’s enamel, perhaps causing tooth decay. We, also, see a simile of sluggishness to the effect of smoke on the eyes. Smoke irritates and burns, sometimes causing lasting damage to the eyes.

So, too, a sluggard’s ways are corrosive and irritating and can cause decay and damage to things of value.

The emphasis in the proverb is on the harm done “those who send” the sluggard. Who are they?

The simplest answer is: one who employs the sluggard as a messenger or an agent. There are many ways such a sender could be harmed by a sluggard. The task that the sender assigned the sluggard may not have been done at all. Or it may have been done in an inaccurate, dishonest, or careless manner. In any case, the relationship between the sender and the ultimate recipient or customer would be corroded or irritated, if not damaged more severely.

Think of the sender as the sluggard’s parent or teacher. We have already studied the important role of the parent/teacher in sending the child/pupil out into the world prepared to lead a responsible and worthy life. Surely, we are pained if our charges become sluggards.

Finally, think of the sender as God. God creates us in the Divine image to be a co-creator in the world with God. If we become sluggards, that noble expectation is clearly undermined.

We’ll study many contrasting, positive ways of living. Perhaps none paints the picture more vividly than this simple proverb: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! Proverbs 6:6

Nourishing the Heart

“The lips of the righteous shepherd many, while fools die because of lack of sense.” Proverbs 10:21

 

This is rich! Let’s dive right in.

The Hebrew word for what is translated as the “righteous” is tzadik. The proverb suggests that the speech of the tzadik achieves something very good.

So, first, we ask: who is a tzadik? A tzadik is one who acts in ways that are just, charitable, righteous, fair, equitable, and characterized by integrity. In essence, a tzadik is a person who sees the right and decent thing to do – what’s just and compassionate – and does it.

While we don’t have the time here to go into this concept more deeply, I know you can conjure up memories of a person who has regularly acted in these ways. This is a tzadik.

What’s fascinating about the proverb is that it says that a tzadik will “yiru” many others. The translation for “yiru” is “shepherd.” This could also mean feed, guide, associate with, desire, or honor. I generally love the idea that when a Hebrew word could mean many things, we should deem it as meaning all such things.

Thus, a person who speaks and lives in ways that are both just and compassionate guides, nourishes, and honors those with whom he/she associates.

The second part of the proverb may seem disjointed, but I believe it actually flows naturally. The fool is one who does not have the sense to be “fed” by the tzadik.

Yet, I think it involves more than that. The Hebrew word for “sense” is “lev,” which can also mean heart, mind, understanding, and even the inner self, including the seat of courage, emotion, pride, and conscience.

So, incorporating all these possibilities, we could come to this wisdom: We’re foolish if we fail to nourish our heart, that is, our understanding, our courage, our conscience. When this malnourishment approaches starvation, the inner self faces death. Nourishing the heart, we find life.

The Perils of Spreading Conflict

“Hatred stirs up conflict, while love covers up all offenses.” Proverbs 10:12

What do we think this proverb teaches? What does it not teach? What meaning might it have for us today?

Let’s start with what it does not teach. It does not condone covering up all offenses. When one commits a wrong, one may not cover it up. Proverbs 28:13

Nor does it mean that we shouldn’t, where and when appropriate, admonish others for wrongs done. Proverbs 27:5

The proverb does seem to teach, I think, the wisdom of diminishing the space of conflict in our lives and in the world.

Hatred ignites and spreads conflict. This certainly happens when, out of hatred, we make a bad situation worse by irritating and expanding it. Stirring up conflict from a latent condition to past the boiling point or inflaming existing conflict is extremely dangerous and should be avoided.

But love can “cover” offenses, that is, weaken or diminish them, thus, having the effect of reducing conflict. This is particularly so when we respond to offenses in appropriate and disciplined ways. Falling prey to making more of offenses than is warranted – whether it’s out of a bloated sense of self-righteousness, a decision to fan the flames when unnecessary, or a real, underlying motive of self-promotion – all can spread conflict and create or worsen problems.

The last thing I want to do here is get too deeply into our current political and civic strife. Nor do I want at all to excuse despicable behavior by those who act despicably.

But I do want to raise two questions in light of the wisdom of this proverb: 1) to what extent do we as citizens stir up further conflict through our own hatred of the other side, and 2) to what extent could we reduce conflict by allocating the blame and spite we assign to the other side with greater care, equanimity, and limits?

Often Unseen Are the Greatest Dangers

“No bird is caught in a net set out before his eyes.” Proverbs 1:17.

 

This first “proverb” in Proverbs appears in Lecture I where the father (or teacher) is warning his son (student) to avoid gangs, to avoid association with criminals or other bad people.

What does the proverb mean for the son, and for us?

There are several possibilities.

The principal lesson, I believe, is that the allure of associating with the wrong lot does not often practically carry with it loud warning bells of the dangers of being caught and getting in trouble. In other words, the mind of the tempted one is usually much more on the prospect of self-gain, the fun to be had, and the fruit of the enterprise than it is on an awareness of its negative consequences.

Even a bird knows better than to fly into a net. So, if we properly understand the risk and loss of going wrong, we wouldn’t “fly” there either. The father here is saying the net that awaits wrongdoers isn’t typically seen, so the warning initially must come from him and be internally seen and understood as a deterrent by the son.

Isn’t the same true for us? When we feel the urge to do wrong because we see mostly the benefit for ourselves in it, the Proverbs teach us to create and rely upon an in-built warning of a “net” to avoid it.

Sages throughout time have had other interpretations.

Some say the wisdom may be more about the bad guys. They’re more witless than birds. They don’t see the net that is before them, yet proceed anyway. The youth should be smart enough not to join such fools.

Another: the bad guys set out to catch up the innocent in their schemes, but have unwittingly set up a trap in which they all will be snared. Thus, the teacher warns the student against getting caught with them.

A Message of Thanks to You

I made a serious, yearlong vow a year ago.

God-willing, I committed to exploring each week the nexus between the Torah portion and its companion in the Prophets, the Haftarah, and writing a blog on what I found. My goal was threefold: to be true to the texts and traditions, to be fresh in my own analysis, and to deduce and suggest lessons that might help guide us in our own times to better ways of living.

So, 50 blogs ago, I began on this WordPress website with a commentary on the parasha, Matot-Massei, and its related text in Jeremiah. And, here we are this week, returning to that very place in the cycle.

It has been a labor of love, and a labor of challenge and hard effort. I am very grateful for the journey – for all I have learned, for the inspiration from God to see important truths I had not understood as profoundly before, and for the opportunity to share all this with others.

I am grateful, too, for the time and conversation with my wife, Camille Kress, whose brilliance and extraordinary editing added greatly to my own knowledge and the quality of my writing. Finally, I am grateful to the many friends and followers who have responded to these pieces both with warm encouragement and profound insights of their own.

This matter of what links the Torah and Haftarah texts has long interested me. My curiosity was kindled back in my youth when I heard wise rabbis exploring this territory in sermons. Later, I turned to research to learn more from great sages and rabbis throughout time. Now, after having begun to devote my own time largely to the study and teaching of Jewish sacred texts, I concluded it was my turn to try, and to do so thoroughly.

Each week I spent Thursdays pretty fully immersed in study and writing, and Friday mornings in sharing the essays through emails and social media.

I will always have special memories of my “Thursday work” this past year, perhaps especially when the work was done on trips to California, New York, and elsewhere. There never was an excuse to avoid the commitment, and the reward is memories of those trips that are now richer for my having done this work.

I feel another “study and write” vow coming on. But, though I have a few ideas about possible topics, I want to rest a bit and think more about it. After all, vows should be made carefully!

Praised are You, O Lord our God, who has blessed us with knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, and the work of sharing and growing in Your words and ways.

Each of Us Has a Special Voice

 

For this week’s Torah portion, a special reading from Prophets has been assigned. This is so because we are in a period of the year in which we reflect upon the loss of the First Temple, and there are verses from Jeremiah that are apt. But, there’s also a gem of a life lesson in the text. Let’s look for it.

We read at the outset that Jeremiah lived at a time when the people of Judah had strayed so badly they were in great peril. God commissioned the prophet to warn the people of the painful consequences of their behavior.

Told of his role, Jeremiah protested, “Alas, O Lord God! Behold, I know not to speak for I am a youth.” God responded by assuring him that “whatever I command you, you shall speak…for I am with you to save you.” Further, God reached out to the prophet, saying, “Behold, I have placed My words in your mouth.”

Of what experience in the Bible does this story powerfully resonate? I think of Moses’ reaction when he was first called to prophetic service. Don’t you?

Recall when God spoke from the burning bush, directing Moses to take God’s people out of Egypt.

Moses, too, protested. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? …They will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice…I am not a man of words, …I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” God assured Moses, “So now, go! I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you what you shall speak.”

What are we to make of these similar, stunning experiences?

I think they teach us what it means, and how important it is, to use our own voices and lives to serve God and others.

Our instinct, like that of the prophets, is that we are not up to the task. We are too young (or too old). We stutter in our speech, and are, in so many ways, unready and inadequate. “Please don’t ask me to do that. I can’t.”

Yet, the truth is: we can. With all their weaknesses and doubts, both Moses and Jeremiah served God and the people for 40 years, the rest of their adult lives. They were imperfect, but their service was dutiful, sustaining, and memorable. Here we are, centuries later, reading and learning from them.

Moses was the prophet of redemption, the one who led us to God’s Word and ways, and to the land of promise. Jeremiah was the prophet who taught us to turn back from waywardness, warning of exile from that land, if we failed to do so. Even with the imminence of devastation, he foresaw the hope and promise of ultimate return.

What are you called to do? What service can you give to God and community? What remarkable difference can you make in the world, especially if you overcome your own insecurities, and act?

A good part of the Torah portion relates to the taking of a census. It is long and detailed, as if to say all people (then and now) count. We are all needed for service. And we all have a stake in the Promised Land, the bountiful place that God has established for those who serve in covenant.

How poignant it is that the portion ends with a vision of the end of Moses’s service. What mainly does it portray? We see the next person stepping up – a person with his own doubts and uncertainties as well as his own special potential to make a splendid contribution. It is, of course, Joshua.

We are not expected to be Moses, Joshua or Jeremiah. But, in being our true selves, we, like they, are expected to hear the call, overcome our doubts, and serve. God has given each of us a special voice and guidance on how to use it. “So now, go!”