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Mishlei: Wisdom, Knowledge & Understanding

“For God grants wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6) Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Levi commented on this verse. One of them said, “To what can this be compared? To a wealthy man who had a son. The son returned home from school and found a large meal prepared on the table before his father. The father took a piece of food and handed it to his son. What did the son say? ‘I only want what comes from your mouth, your plate.’ What did the father do? He took from the food that was on his plate and shared it with his son. Why? Because he loved his son so much. This is the meaning of the verse, “From His mouth come Knowledge and understanding;” God shares from His plate with those He loves.” (Shemot Rabbah 41:3)

Although we tend to think of wisdom as greater, or a higher level than understanding, this Midrash teaches that understanding comes directly from God’s mouth, and is a higher expression of love.

We have already discussed the development of an idea through the stages of wisdom, knowledge and understanding. However, we can further develop these concepts by applying them to the development of “Midot,” personal characteristics, through the three stages:

“Midah,” also means measurement, as in tractate Midot, which teaches the measurements of the Beit Hamikdash. When we see someone who always speaks calmly to others, we measure his Midot by externals; how he interacts with other people. I have heard a very angry person described as “never angry,” because he never voices his anger. The external measurement of his character is as a person who has conquered anger.

The need to control anger is the Chochmah, or wisdom. As long as his behavior is measured only by externals, i.e. how he deals with other people, his Midah remains at the stage of Chochmah. A person who says, “I am working on my anger by never getting angry,” has the information that anger is destructive, but lacks the Da’at or knowledge, and certainly the Tevunah,  the understanding.

A Midah is never accurately measured by externals. It shapes, nurtures and directs the soul. As long as the Midah remains at the Chochmah level, it will not even begin to influence the soul.

Rabbi observed: “Suffering is precious.” Thereupon he undertook [to suffer likewise] for thirteen years, six through stones in the kidneys and seven through scurvy: others reverse it. Rabbi’s house-steward was wealthier than King Shapur. When he placed fodder for the beasts, their cries could be heard for three miles, and he aimed at casting it [before them] just then when Rabbi entered his privy closet, yet even so, his voice [lifted in pain] was louder than theirs, and was heard [even] by sea-farers. Nevertheless, the sufferings of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon were superior [in virtue] to those of Rabbi. For whereas those of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon came to him through love, and departed in love, those of Rabbi came to him through a certain incident, and departed likewise.

‘They came to him through a certain incident.’ What is it? — A calf was being taken to the slaughter, when it broke away, hid his head under Rabbi’s skirts, and lowed [in terror]. ‘Go’, said he,‘for this you were created.’ Thereupon they said [in Heaven], ‘Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.’

‘And departed likewise.’ How so? — One day Rabbi’s maidservant was sweeping the house; [seeing] some young weasels lying there, she made to sweep them away. ‘Let them be,’ said he to her; ‘It is written, and his tender mercies are over all his works. ‘Said they [in Heaven], ‘Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him. (Bava Metziah 85a)

Rabbi Yehudah began by measuring his Midah of compassion by his interaction with others, so when he dealt with an animal, he simply said, “You were created for this.” However, he was wrong, and suffered until he realized that his Midah of compassion had to define him. It had to become part of his response to every detail of his life, even an animal on its way to the Altar.

Rabbi Yehudah learned how to take his Midah from Chochmah to knowledge. He had to realize that he could only begin to “eat directly from God’s mouth,” when his compassion was not a practiced behavior, but part of his very being.

Once he took he worked on his Midah through personal, internal application, he was able to receive Torah with a healthier soul, and achieve Tevunah; he was able to study Torah with a compassionate soul.

We will continue with the next column based on the Shemonah Perakim of the Rambam, Chapter 6: The Difference Between a Pious Person and One Who Overcomes His Desires.

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