Wealth Is Good, but Not as Good as We Imagine

“A rich man’s wealth is his fortified city and like a lofty wall – in his imagination.” Proverbs 18:11

 

One of the characteristics I love most about the book of Proverbs is the difficult, but honest balance it seeks and sees in most things and, as a result, the nuanced truth it teaches.

It takes strong stands. Make no mistake. But where “gray” is true, we don’t see “black or white” touted.

Unhappily, this is not often the case in our culture and our politics. You know what I’m talking about. The proponents of “either-or” thinking are all over the news; indeed they tend to include both the newsmakers as well as those covering the news. “My side is good and right, and the other side is bad and wrong.”

Just as unfortunate is the proclivity of today’s merchants of “virtue” to claim purity, that is, that there is no shading in their views. There’s no nuance. It’s as if the idea that truth would have complex and sometimes conflicting dimensions would run counter to virtue itself.

Sadly, I see this in abundance in modern day religion, too, especially in the propaganda that often comes from the pulpit as well as the resolution-spewing machines of organizations from all across the faith spectrum.

This is true both on the right and the left. “The Bible (or our tradition) is clear on this, and we take our position to be true to the cause.” When asked how they would deal with other people who are equally of faith but have opposing views, these folks either double down in the trenches they’ve dug or slink away, promising to be open to diversity but never really meaning it.

In today’s proverb, we find truth that illustrates how often wisdom brings to bear the best features of ideas from varying sides of a reality. Let’s take a look.

Wealth is good! It provides advantages that are unmistakable. It brings power. It gives us resources that help protect us from all sorts of dangers and threats. Being opposed to wealth per se is, we’re taught, foolish and wrong.

But the strength of wealth is limited; so, being too enamored of it is equally foolish and wrong. Wealth is more important in our imagination than it is in reality. We fashion it as a wall that is higher than it is. And, thus, we tend to make a false image (idol?) of it.

What’s the risk of failing to acknowledge each side of this truth? We fail to benefit from the utility of wealth if we refuse to see its real value. But, if we over-rely on wealth, we put ourselves at risk of loss and defeat by thinking wealth is more than it is and can meet needs that require more spiritual or ethical resources for satisfaction.

The beauty of balanced wisdom is that it disciplines our imagination to be aligned with truth. Then, in wholeness, we can best find our way to success in meeting our most important needs.

None of this is as easy as following the path of simple ideology. But, for those who seek true righteousness, justice, and fairness, it is a surer path.

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On Being Grateful

“All the days of the afflicted are bad, but he whose heart is cheerful has an ongoing feast.” Proverbs 15:15

“A glad heart does good like a medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” Proverbs 17:22

“A glad heart brightens the face, but by sorrow in the heart the spirit is broken.” Proverbs 15:13

 

 

Approaching Thanksgiving, I looked in Proverbs for wisdom that relates to the value of being grateful. What I found were insightful observations about the wonders of “a glad heart.” I believe gratitude leads directly to a gladdened heart. Let’s see how, and what they – together – mean for us.

Here’s a suggestion: devote some of your Thanksgiving discussion around the table with family and friends to exploring these questions: 1) for what are we grateful, 2) how does gratitude gladden our hearts, and 3) what difference would a gladdened heart make in our lives?

First, look at the Hebrew words for gratitude – hikarat hatov. This literally means, “recognizing the good.” Being grateful begins with recognizing all the good that has come our way.

What good would you say has come your way? Here’s what I would say as a start: my life, my parents who gave me life and taught me of life, a world of beauty and wonder, opportunities to serve others and God, family and friends, a mind to contemplate my many blessings, the capacity to learn and grow, and knowing that I have a way of return when I stray. It goes on and on for me, as I know it would for you.

The mere act of reciting what makes me grateful indeed gladdens my heart. Doesn’t doing so gladden yours? I suspect so, and I suspect it would for all those who celebrate Thanksgiving with you.

This feeling in the heart is one, the Proverbs teach, that we should seek to maintain on a perpetual basis. It is a medicine that does wonders for the spirit and the body. It brightens our face and our outlook, thus improving the quality of our lives. And it serves as the foundation for a continuing feast each day of our lives, when the heart is made right by the feeling of gratitude.

The wisdom here, thus, provides for both an immediate and an enduring celebration. We experience Thanksgiving by reflecting on the gratitude we feel and enjoying it with the day’s feast. But, even better, we are rewarded with ongoing feast for sustaining gratitude.

Let’s strive to gladden our hearts through the discipline of a constant exercise of gratitude for all that blesses our lives. If we do that, we’ll feel even more thankful for the joy a gladdened heart brings to our lives. Beautifully, then, as the gratitude grows, so will the joy!

Finally, whenever gloom or despair disturbs this pattern of living, try to stay the course by hearkening to the guidance of the great Hasidic teacher, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov: “Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude, though, doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair and taking life for granted.”

How to Avoid Strife with Others

“Starting strife is like releasing water, so before a quarrel breaks out, leave off!” Proverbs 17:14

 

I love practical, effective advice. This proverb has such advice aplenty.

The first idea here is that to understand how strife begins we should consider the reality of releasing water. Why?

I think the comparison is to the flow of water in which it begins as a trickle but soon turns into a fast moving stream. This happens, to be sure, when a dam breaks. It’s generally true in any sort of flood. We understand that the end of such release can be and often is damaging, harmful to those who are located in the wake of the water’s surge.

The proverb suggests that strife begins the same way. The process tends to start small, perhaps even innocently. It may be with a mere observation that somehow offends. It may be words or gestures that have a displeasing effect. Out of emotion or even righteousness, the listener then speaks or reacts in ways that exacerbate the problem. One thing leads to another, and full-blown strife emerges.

We understand this, and, if we’re smart and disciplined, we will prevent an escalation that too often results in conflict and pain.

This is where I think our wisdom statement offers its greatest value, by teaching – rightly, I believe – that one must look for the moment “before a quarrel breaks out” and stop the flow there.

That is to say, if we want to have a human encounter that begins with provocative words, thinking benignly that they might, for example, lead to constructive friction, fine. But, when they turn to quarrel, it’s time to quit, lest we fall into strife.

I’m reminded of a wonderful lesson in the Talmud.  In tractate Bava Metzia, we find a discussion of wronging others with words. In one place, it teaches specifically about how to avoid hurting wives (spouses) with words. How? Refrain at the outset from ever getting into a quarrel!

Think of it. If you could stop contention from getting out of control by breaking it off before a quarrel develops, how often might you have been able to prevent strife?

As for myself, I must confess it would have almost always worked.

It’s More Interesting Than “Pride Goes Before a Fall”

“Pride goes before a fall, and before stumbling – haughtiness of spirit.” Proverbs 16:18

 

Most of us surely have heard the first part of this proverb. It’s commonly known, and its wisdom is apparent.

Those who are proud may think they’re high and mighty, but, though they may be so temporarily, they’re often ultimately headed for a fall. The teaching, which is easier apprehended than followed, is that we should be humble regardless of how good our fortune may appear.

It’s sort of a physical thing. The theory goes that it simply isn’t right or natural for us to place ourselves up too high, either in position or unjustified confidence. Rather than doing so and experiencing the damage of a fall that may occur, it’s better to stay grounded all along.

While this is a nice lesson, there’s much more of value in the proverb. There’s hidden, extraordinary guidance for us, if we’re patient and diligent enough to find it.

First, let’s ask: does a fall always follow pride and, when it does, why? And, what is it about being high in pride that can lead to a fall?

No, those who are proud do not always fall. But, if we understand the Hebrew word better, we can see a form of pride that does carry a serious risk of fall.

The word that’s translated as pride, gaown, often means arrogance, an extreme or swelling pride. The problem here, therefore, occurs when a person acts arrogantly, that is in ways that are blind to personal weaknesses and resistant to being criticized about them. Because of this unaddressed hubris, such persons often take foolish, stupid, or wrong paths that lead to a fall.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for fall is shehvehr, which is more literally brokenness or destruction. So, the truer proverbial wisdom in the first statement is that an extreme version of pride, arrogance, can, and often does, lead to calamity, even destruction.

Understanding this initial severity, let’s now look at the wise warning in the proverb’s second statement.

Here we learn that a haughty spirit leads to stumbling. This is invaluable guidance. It’s a spirit that is too much characterized by haughtiness, or being high, that leads to a stumble that, in turn, can lead to a fall of destructive consequence.

What’s the message? If we want to avoid the pride that leads to calamity, we must attack the disease of haughtiness in our spirit that initiates the wrong and hurtful process.

How? Perhaps we should consider: 1) waking ourselves to the real dangers of falling, 2) identifying haughtiness in our spirit and substituting for it at least a dose of humility, and 3) developing and consistently applying the traits of prudence and discipline.

In other words, it’s easy to say that pride precedes a fall. But the proverb, especially the part of it we tend not to study, shows us more precisely how to avoid or reverse the prideful process that can cause a fall’s great harm.

We’d be smart to pay attention.

Measuring Up

“A just balance and scales are the Lord’s. All the weights in the bag are His work.” Proverbs 16:11

 

The author of this proverbial wisdom has considerable support for it in Torah:

“Use honest scales and measures…I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:36

“Do not have two differing weights in your bag…You must have accurate and honest…weights…so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” Deuteronomy 25:13,15.

Why are just balances and scales the Lord’s? What is the purpose of a just balance and scales?

First, God is the source of our most fundamental principles and the Giver of the means by which we measure and pursue our living true to them. For example, we should be righteous and loving as God is righteous and loving. And, we use the instruments that God has given us – our mind, heart, conscience, and soul – to weigh our decisions and live in these Divine ways.

Second, a balance and scales are, at least metaphorically, the means by which we conduct commerce with others. In the past, if one bought a commodity, a balance and scales might actually have been used for fairly weighing it with a known measure.

Today, we measure many things with modern devices, yet the principle remains the same. We must be fair and just with those with whom we have transactions. We are to be honest, and not to cheat.

Notice that the proverb addresses more than balances and scales. It also addresses the weights that are used. The words suggest that the balances and scales are God’s, as are the weights “in the bag” that assure accurate measurement on them.

Perhaps what this teaches more deeply is that God expects us to create a fair system of justice and that there must be means by which such a system is made to work justly.

Look at how the two verses from the Bible conclude. We use a just balance and scales in deference to God who redeemed us from Egypt. We were freed to create a system of justice. But it is only because of the maintenance of a just system through the ongoing use of honest weights that we are blessed with an enduring presence in the Promised Land.

Finally, the proverb may also teach that God measures us for being true to this Divine call, and does so by means of ethical weights calibrated – not by our being perfect – but rather by our good faith efforts to live in God’s ways. Our Lord takes it very seriously when instead of loving our neighbors as ourselves, we cheat them, thinking God will not notice or see our treachery as inconsequential. For, in the weighing, “God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.” Deuteronomy 25:16

We are to live honestly and justly with others. God sees all and – with righteousness, abundant kindness, and compassion – judges us accordingly.

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!