Mishlei: Personalizing Wisdom
“To make known words of wisdom and discipline; to make words of understanding discernible.” (1:2) Da’at – to know – always refers to relate to something in a personal way, as in, “And Adam knew Eve, his wife.”
King Solomon uses proverbs to teach us how to acquire wisdom in order that we may relate to his teachings in a personal and immediate way. The Mussar – discipline – is intended to purify our knowledge so that it is not constrained by our failings and limitations.
King Solomon is addressing people who are on a quest for wisdom. Solomon’s students dedicate their lives to constantly acquiring more wisdom in order to master themselves and strengthen their connection with God.
I. The Power of the Quest
The Midrash compares Abraham to a person wandering in the forest who looks up and sees a great palace with lights shining in all the windows. The lost traveler immediately understands that there must be a ‘master of the house.’ The palace did not appear on its own. So too, Abraham, looked at the world and understood that there must be a ‘master of the house.’ He then dedicated his life to discovering the Master and connecting with Him.
Many people ask, “Who is the master?” Abraham’s life was a quest for the answer. Solomon composed Proverbs to guide those who share Abraham’s mission. These students recognize and appreciate that the answers to their questions matter to them in the most personal way.
A friend pointed out that Ezra HaSofer, Confucius and Buddha, all walked the earth at the same time. Three human beings who influenced billions of people over hundreds of generations, shared the pursuit of truth and wisdom. Their influence is a direct reflection of the power of their search.
II. Three Steps Toward Self-Mastery
The Vilna Gaon (Commentary to Proverbs) explains that this verse indicates there are three essential steps to this quest: 1) to gain enough wisdom to protect ourselves from falling into the traps of the Yetzer Harah – the Evil Inclination. 2) Mussar, which we translated as discipline, is actually a play of words on ‘asurim’ – being imprisoned. These are steps to free ourselves from the traps of evil that have already ensnared us. 3) The phrase, “To perceive words of understanding,” refers to using perceptions that derive from heaven, the Torah, in order to grow. We should not strive to be holier than the Torah. Its wisdom will guide us in how to live in this world and master it and ourselves.
III. Three Types of Wisdom
The Gra continues: The three steps above parallel three types of wisdom: Abstract, Wisdom and Action.
Abstract wisdom deals with the spiritual and ethereal. Practical wisdom addresses refinement of personal character, and Action guides are immediate behavior.
These three, in turn, correspond to Chukim, Mishpatim and Mitzvot. Chukim, or Statutes, speak to our abstract wisdom and insight. Mishpatim refine us, and Mitzvot allow us to connect the abstract to the practical, earth to heaven. All of Torah and its Mitzvot guide us in the development of all forms of wisdom. We can use these instructions to personalize the Torah’s wisdom.