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.

Advertisements

The Importance of Being Open to Chastisement

“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates reproof is senseless.” Proverbs 12:1

 

A deeper understanding of this proverb’s wisdom requires that we know a little Hebrew.

Musar is the word that is translated as discipline. But musar is really more than discipline. I like to think of it, too, as chastisement or correction. In that light, the proverb can also give us a keen insight into how to approach Yom Kippur, the major holiday we encounter tomorrow.

On that day, we complete a process of turning back to God, partly through examining and improving our behavior and seeking forgiveness for wrongs done against God and others. To paraphrase the proverb, Yom Kippur, for Jews, is a prime time to “love chastisement” by accepting and acting on it.

What do we gain when we love chastisement? Through that love, we show we love knowledge, and, from that love, we gain knowledge.

Da’at is the Hebrew word for knowledge. Importantly, this is a very different knowledge than that which it takes to do well on Jeopardy. It’s really a knowledge of, and rich instruction in, how to live life well, in accord with the virtues and principles that reflect God’s expectations of us.

So, now we’ve gotten to the heart of the proverb. Our openness to being properly chastised in the important matters of life, and changing accordingly, is essential to mastering the knowledge it takes to live a good life.

In addition to getting right with God and our fellows, isn’t this, then, at the core of Yom Kippur, the fundamental work of this holy day?

The other side of the proverb is true, too. If we hate reproof, preferring instead to ignore chastisement, we are senseless, even stupid, to the necessary activity of self-correction. And, thus, we close ourselves off from the life-changing knowledge it makes possible for us.

So, yes, “may your fast be easy,” that is, unless it takes a hard fast to be open to chastisement, change, and turning back to the ways God has lovingly established for us. In that case, may our fast be hard.

The Virtue of Not Worshipping Virtue

“There is one who scatters yet gets more, and one who saves out of honesty yet ends up in need.” Proverbs 11:24

 

I especially love this proverb. Why? I have always found great meaning in it. Yet, after a good bit of research, I have learned that it may mean something exciting, but very different than what I had thought. Ah, the wonders of study!

The proverb appears to teach a worthy lesson: the more we give to others, the richer we become; the more we reserve, the lesser we are for it. There is much wisdom in this powerful idea, and it is an interpretation many commentators give the verses.

But some see a different truth. The intention here, they suggest, is not to moralize, but rather to explore a serious paradox.

We know the Biblical notion that if one lives in God’s ways one will be blessed, and that if one strays one will be cursed. It’s tempting to take this too literally, and, if we do, it can lead to the troubling question of why bad things happen to good people.

One reading of this proverb goes straight to the heart of the matter. It is concerned with the hubris of people like Job’s friends who seem fixed in believing that the material wellbeing of others (or lack thereof) is tied exclusively to their behavior and, thus, their standing with God.

The proverb drives to a more nuanced view. It’s a fact – a person does not always get a material outcome that ideally would flow from good behavior. Some spend a lot, perhaps even wastefully, and still succeed materially in getting more. Others, out of good intention, save, and yet end up in need.

Here’s what I love most about this realization. The Biblical book of Proverbs teaches us much about the value of important virtues, including hard work, industry, and discipline. But, importantly here, the wisdom teaches the virtue of not worshipping virtue.

We live as best we can, but we can’t be overconfident in automatic or assured outcomes. There is no rigid deed-consequence formula that predictably leads to results we want or at the time we want them. Rather, we live dutifully, in God’s ways, and find our peace and blessing in doing so.

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.

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?