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Mishlei: Chapter 3: Selections from Rabbeinu Yonah

From notes prepared by Slavie Friedman: My son, forget not My instruction


After Solomon


instructed us how one should search after wisdom, he will instruct us in this paragraph how one should begin one’s service of God. As we stated previously as an introduction, it is only through wisdom that one could achieve true service of God.


This chapter addresses transforming the wisdom into service:

That’s why it is so important in this verse how careful one must be to guard one’s wisdom after learning it and not forget it. There are two alternate ways to explain when it says, ‘Don’t forget My torah’ and both of them are in the verse. One is that a person has to make a deliberate conscious effort to not forget what he has learned. Two is that one has to immediately take what one has learnt and put it into action. That’s why you have mitzvah in the same paragraph.

There is a gemara in Chagiga, that’s based on a verse that says, ‘God will come and judge between the righteous one and the wicked and between the one who serves God and the one who doesn’t serve God’. The gemara says that it seems redundant. If you said that God is going to judge between the righteous and the wicked, then why do you say that God is going to judge between the one that serves God and the one who doesn’t? They seem to be the same thing. A tzaddik serves God, a rasha does not. The gemara answers, no. If you have someone who studies something and reviews it a hundred times, he is a person who has not yet served God. If you have someone who studied and reviewed it a hundred and one times, then that person has served God.

Meaning, the one who serves God, reviews it over and over and over and always says, “I can do it one more time.” There is nowhere that you experience service of God, literally, more than reviewing what you’ve learnt. How many times have you gone over what we’ve learnt last week? It’s unbelievable. We don’t do it. Most people learn something and then lose it. They are not really attached to it. That’s why the gemara says that Rabbi Akiva said that whoever learns something and forgets it, it is as if the person lost a child. The gemara says that one of the first  questions they ask you in your final judgement when you pass away is what did you learn. ‘Oh I took a Mishlei class’. ‘Oh, what did you learn?’ ‘I don’t remember’. ‘If you don’t remember, it doesn’t count.’

There’s a gemara with Otniel ben Kenaz where he was listing out his basic needs to God. He said, “I need money. I need a wife. I need children, friends, health. And I need you to take away the evil inclination that prevents me from reviewing.” The one evil inclination he asked for God’s help with, was the one that prevents him from reviewing something over and over again.

In order to be a true Eved Hashem, (which is what he’s saying here; this is a paragraph that has instructions on how to serve God), one must have a commitment to what one has learnt. Often we hear these wonderful ideas and insights. We have them, learn them, read them or hear them from someone else and we forget them, no matter how much we appreciate them. Here he is telling you that in order to be a true Eved Hashem, you have to be committed to what you learn.

That’s one thing, meaning reviewing it. And the second is, you have to put it into action.

What happens if I hear something theoretical? How do I put it into action? Let’s say you hear something like what God did when He created the world and it’s a very powerful idea to you. Or last week in the haggada class we spoke about kadesh, orchatz, on why it goes in that order. That which comes from the heaven above to down below. Very nice. Now how do you incorporate that? It takes skills to learn how to take ideas that are more abstract and learn how to incorporate them into your avodas Hashem, which is a spiritual. That’s why you should always go to your local rabbi and get a spiritual.

For they shall add length of days and years of life and peace to you.

Here all he says is that it’s very nice things. He doesn’t really elaborate.

Kindness and truth shall not leave you

I would like to give you an introduction based on the kabbalah of the Ari, the Holy Lion. He says as follows: You have what is called the higher soul. The higher soul has the fruit, which is how it’s described, which is the essence of good. That fruit has around it a shell because there is nothing that is purely good in existence anymore after the sin of Adam and Eve. But you still have what is purely a spiritual existence where you need something that is going to connect the higher level of existence, the spiritual existence, with the body, which is physical. That is called the lower level neshama. The lower level neshama is where all your middos are, your personal characteristics. Therefore, before your body can become an effective vehicle for the performance of the six hundred and thirteen commandments, you really have to develop your lower soul. That is why middos are not included in the six hundred and thirteen commandments. There are no commandments unless you have middos.

For example, if you get angry, your neshama, your higher soul, leaves you. If you perform a mitzva when you are angry, it’s not done by your neshama. It has no relation to your soul. It is nothing. Nothing. Because your higher soul is not there. It’s an unbelievable thing. If you are depressed, your nefesh elyonah leaves you. It has no connection to your spiritual existence.

Before you even begin the Taryag mitzvot, you have to work on this nefesh.

A tzaddik is someone who can perform all 613 commandments while fighting all his personal characteristics. A chassid is someone who has made all the proper middos a natural part of his existence as if he was born with those personal characteristics. If you have someone who has a horrible temper and he really works on himself until he becomes a very calm person as if he was always calm and that’s how he performs his mitzvos, that is a chassid, which is the second highest level of serving God.

Middos are the only way you could effectively perform the 613 commandments. If you perform all the commandments and you’re not working on your middos, anger, depression, passions and things like that, but simply controlling them through that, then you’re not effectively performing the 613 commandments.

Audience- He should be working and controlling them?

RSW- Working and controlling them are not the same thing. The chassid has already conquered them. Dovid Hamelech is an example of those who conquered them. A tzaddik is one who performs all 613 commandments, but he’s constantly fighting himself to do it. Whereas the chassid has worked on himself so much, that the good middos are a natural part of his character.

Kindness and truth shall not leave you

Now begins the very practical instructions on the path of service of God. He opens by instructing us on these two attributes and they are chesed (commonly mis-translated as kindness) and emet, truth. Chesed is a generic name for many of the positive personal attributes. Emet is not really speaking to personal, emotional, or character issues as much as it’s speaking to the intellect. What is the practical definition of chesed? He should make it his desire and direct his efforts to do kindness to other people to help them with his money, and with his body, (not something like writing a check, which people mistake for chesed) and make people happy and calm.

Someone came to my office one morning for money for Pesach. I gave him $100, which is pretty good considering the number of  people that come in. He was miserable. He was appreciative of the $100, but you can tell that even in receiving the money, it hit him how short he was of the funds necessary to survive with. He and his children were wearing shoes with holes in them. It was horrible. So I give $100 dollars, which I had in the rabbi fund. I was very generous, but to him, it hit him and didn’t give him nachas ruach, happy and calm. Chesed is not the writing of the check. Chesed is to know what to do in that type of situation and know how to give nachas ruach.

And to be interested in peoples welfare. You can do chesed by simply asking, ‘How are you’. And to desire that people get honor. To want other people to have prestige. To be very careful not to hurt anyone through deed or through word. That’s chesed. Chesed means this is your personality, that you are naturally aware and are doing all these things all the time. Look what happens if you incorporate this positive side of it. You have gotten rid of cruelty, hatred, jealousy and arrogance.

Let’s skip down to Emet.

You should never say that which is bad is good, and that which is good, bad. You should never say something you don’t mean. You should be jealous for the truth. You should love it that the righteous receive honor and that the wicked and sinners be low. This is not included in chesed.  Included in this, you should help people mediate arguments, that they shouldn’t be angry with each other.

It’s interesting. That’s not chesed. That’s emet. This is an unbelievable statement. Let’s say I have two friends who are having an argument and I want to mediate. If I’m mediating as chesed and I’m saying that they are both going to have to compromise, then neither one will be really happy. But if I mediate as emet, as truth, then I’m saying, ‘Both of you are right, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that you could work everything out’.

You should never badmouth someone. In any argument or fight, you should go out of your way to see who the tzaddik is and who the rasha is. Then he elaborates a bit more.

Let’s skip down a bit.

In this paragraph, Shlomo Hamelech is going to teach you about truth and only after teaching you about truth, is he going to teach you about keeping all the other mitzvot. This is an elaborate lists of all the things you need to be careful about in chesed and in emet. Tie it around your throat. Meaning you should always speak about them.  If you always talk about them, it’s the best way to remind yourself to be careful about them. It will also help those who hear you because at least people will learn from you the proper way to live.

It’s true. There is a sefer, Orchot Tzaddikim. It’s a book that says this is bad, this is good. It has arrogance, humility, anger, calm, lying, truth, things like that. It lists all the bad things about lying and all the good things about truth. All the bad things about arrogance, all the good things about humility. Very nice but how is it going to change me? It doesn’t give me any practical exercises. I stopped reading that book in 1972 because it just had no practical use for me. In the summer, I started learning it with my boys and to them, just hearing about it all the time, made a big difference. It made a big difference to me too because they kept saying, “Abba, don’t you remember what it says? Abba, don’t get angry.” It does help. So talking about something even if it’s not necessarily the most sophisticated way to incorporate it, certainly helps you develop awareness. So this is what Rabbenu Yonah means when he says, ‘Tie it on your throat.’

And find favor and good understanding (seichel) in the sight of God and man.

It is through chesed, that you will find chein, in the eyes of the Lord and man. So far, he hasn’t explained seichel tov, only chein.

As our sages have said, whoever has compassion on other creations, in heaven they will have compassion on him as well. As the verse says, God will give you compassion and your compassion will increase. When someone has good personal characteristics, people feel automatically connected with him. Everyone knows that the more kindness you show and practice, the more people like you. Chesed helps you find chein. Emet will help you find seichel tov. What does this mean? Those who walk with total integrity, and are really looking to say that someone is righteous, they are the ones that have good seichel. They do not keep any falsehood included.

They don’t incorporate any falsehood into their wisdom. He’s saying like this: There are two explanations of seichel tov. One is seichel tov that it’s really reflective of you. That one who has seichel tov, will be able to find the seichel tov in what God sees in him and what other people see. People can’t always trust what other people are thinking or feeling. If you have a commitment to integrity and emet, truth, then you will have a more accurate reading on what other people are thinking.

The other one is that you will be more understood. If other people are seeing you through only their own eyes, you are rarely understood. So someone who doesn’t come from my world and sees me, couldn’t begin to understand and wouldn’t read anything right.

When I first moved here from California, the way I would interact with people was much different than what a typical New Yorker was used to. It was always read as false. Instead of just being relaxed and cool about something, it was always read as being false. A New Yorker doesn’t see it that way. They could not see where I was coming from and therefore didn’t have seichel tov of me.

Having seichel tov is a real bracha. It means someone is not going to look at you only through their own eyes and experiences, but are going to see you and understand you as you really are. It’s a powerful thought. The problem I have is that I don’t believe it. I’m a cynical New Yorker. I’m saying it in great pain. I’m becoming more and more disillusioned that if you live a life of integrity, then people will always see it that way.

Let’s say I would be giving a class and someone else would ask a question or make a comment because he has studied this once before, even if the person was wrong, or even if it was a stupid question, I would stop and treat it with great respect and then go on. To teach people that that’s what you have to do.

Or if someone was really obnoxious in shul, I would be very respectful and let the person yell and I would say, ‘It’s okay’ and walk away. Eventually people learned, and began to act that way themselves. Board meetings changed. It was an interesting process to watch over four years. Here, the reaction is, ‘You’re a wimp’. Here, if someone is really obnoxious to me, and I make a point of not yelling back, instead of people saying, ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to yell back’, The reaction is, ‘You’re a wimp’. It’s very sad. So this is why I’m not sure I believe that.

In relationships, it’s also important for your spouse to hear what you’re saying because that is really what you are saying and not because how your spouse sees the world. That could be very painful. It’s like you’re not living with your spouse. You’re acting out your spouse’s father or brother or past. Whatever you say, it’s not you who is saying it but someone else. You have no idea who your spouse is reacting to. It’s very painful. That’s why seichel tov is a good thing to find.

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