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Mishlei: The Wisdom To Listen

“Hear, my child, the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother.” (Proverbs 1:8) How interesting that after King Solomon’s elaborate introduction to the study of wisdom, the first thing he addresses is listening to parents!

Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pekuda, in his Duties of the Heart, The Gate of Service of God, uses this verse to reflect on why a child is obliged to serve, honor, and revere his parents, despite their imperfections. “Let us first consider a father’s kindness to a child. It is well known that a father means to benefit himself when helping his child. (Rabbeinu Bachya is reminding us that although we like to think of ourselves as selfless and giving, especially when it comes to our children, it is important to acknowledge that we are often selfish even with our children. “I will be embarrassed if my child goes out looking like that. It reflects on me.” “I want my children to have all the things I did not. I don’t understand why they don’t want them.”) For, the child is a veritable part of him, because of all the hope the father has for the child’s future. And that he endures all the trouble and toil to make things easier for the child only because his ancestors implanted compassion and pity for children within him. 

“The father is impelled to do what he does by his nature and only acts as an agent of God, Who actually does all the good. (See The Gate of Reflection, Chapter 5: God then makes his parents so good, kind and merciful that raising him is not a burden to them. They like washing him, changing him, etc,. As well as the need to guide him patiently and protect him from danger, even against his will – is nothing in their eyes.)

Rabbeinu Bachya focuses on parents as the agents of God. We still have to wonder why wisdom is necessary to listen to a parent?  We can understand that we can gain wisdom from our parents, just as we can learn from anyone older, wiser and more experienced. Why does Solomon begin his actual instructions of and for wisdom with hearing a father’s words of discipline and not abandoning a mother’s teachings?

The Midrash and many commentaries explain that Solomon is referring to the Written Law – father, and the Oral Law – mother. I hope to elaborate on that approach. However, when we began this series we said that we would first deal with each verse on its most basic level; the vernacular. What is Shlomo Hamelech teaching us with this verse?

I believe that Mark Twain got it right when he said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But, when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

I am often astounded by children’s assumption and conviction that they know so much more than their parents. Children believe that in order to become fully independent they have to be smarter than their parents.

I suspect that Shlomo Hamelech would not have been so surprised. The Midrash relates numerous stories of the young Shlomo using his brilliance to help people who felt that they did not receive a fair hearing from King David. The stories consistently describe a young man who ‘outsmarted’ his father. Yet, Shlomo began Proverbs by describing himself as the son of David.

The father’s last instructions to Shlomo were wise enough to be included in both the book of Kings and Chronicles. Shlomo may have been wiser than King David, but he still insists that the first step of wisdom is to hear your father’s words of Mussar, and to not forsake your mother’s teachings.

True wisdom cannot begin by being ‘smarter than’ others. Wisdom begins with the acceptance that I have much to learn even from those who are imperfect. We cannot become wise or skilled at using wisdom if we perceive wisdom as beginning with us.

Shlomo spoke of the wisdom of awe in the previous verse. The best way to evaluate whether our wisdom has the quality of awe is to measure our response to the people against whom we struggle for independence.

This issue often plays out when an adult who was raised as a non-religious Jew, decides to become observant. Parents in such situations often feel that their child’s choice is a rejection of them. Many of these adults are convinced that they understand something that their parents do not.

The choice is to live with a relationship with God, with the wisdom of awe and the awe of wisdom. The next step is to evaluate how the adult relates to his or her parents’ teachings, directions and values. King Solomon insists that if the choice to live with the wisdom of awe leads to a total rejection of one’s parents, it is not truly the wisdom of awe. Parents are, as Rabbeinu Bachya taught, agents of God. They may even be imperfect agents. However, true wisdom will rarely demand a total rejection of our parents’ teachings.

We must learn to find our parents’ wisdom. Who knows? We may even be as surprised as Twain by how much they have learned over the past seven years!

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