Previous Chapter

Chapter Two

In Search of Wisdom

The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.
Psalms 111:10
A little bit of knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but wisdom, in any amount, is indispensable for growth and self-fulfillment. The difference between the two is basic: whereas knowledge can lead to either constructive or destructive results, wisdom only promotes positive growth.

For example, science and technology have benefited mankind, except when the results of research have fallen into the wrong hands. Some of the most knowledgeable people of this century were responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust, atrocities that a wise person could never perpetrate.

There is another, more fundamental distinction between knowledge and wisdom: knowledge is easy to access, but wisdom is difficult to obtain. To know something on a basic level is to be aware of its existence, a mechanical process easily performed by the mind. To be wise is to have a profound understanding of that which one is aware.

Thus, if a person wishes to become knowledgeable, one merely needs to read a book, or absorb the words of another. But if one wishes to become wise, such efforts only initiate the process.

How does one become wise? King David addressed the issue directly when he wrote:

The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God [Yiras Hashem]. (Psalms 111:10)
Thus one can be aware of everything there is to know - science, physics, mathematics, astronomy, etc. - yet, if they donít fear God, then they still lack wisdom.

But why and how does fear of God play such a central role in obtaining wisdom? Moreover, the very word "fear" invokes negative feelings and is associated with all kinds of debilitating phobias and unnatural constriction.

The answer begins by understanding the difference between two Hebrew words translated as fear: pachad and yirah. Pachad is the Hebrew word for dread, the kind of fear that paralyzes and intimidates. Yirah, on the other hand can also be translated as Ďhe will seeí.

Thus to "fear" God in this sense is to see God, a vision of which can only inspire a person to grow, leave them with an exhilarating sense of awe, and more importantly, provide objectivity - the key to becoming wise. The Torah makes the essential connection between objectivity and wisdom clear through the following comment:

In the third month since the Jewish peopleís leaving of Egypt, on that day they came to the Sinai desert. They traveled from Refidim and came to the Sinai desert and camped in the desert; and they camped (vayichan) opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:1-3)
Rashi, bothered by the use of the singular vayichan in place of the grammatically correct and plural vayachanu, quotes a midrash to explain the anomaly. The Torah, in using the singular form, wished to point out that at the time of the giving of the Torah, the entire Jewish nation camped ...
Like a single individual with a single heart.
But why does the Torah interrupt the description of the most dramatic event in the history of mankind - the giving of Torah - to inform us that all the Jews got along with one another? The answer: harmony is the result of selflessness, selflessness is the result of objectivity, and objectivity is the pre-requisite for accurately receiving the Torah ... for becoming wise, as the Talmud states:
And why is it written, ĎAnd from the desert a gift ... í (Numbers 21:18) [It is to teach you that] if one behaves as a desert ... then oneís Torah-learning will not be forgotten. (Talmud Eiruvin 54a)

Why is it written ĎThe Torah is not in heaven, and itís not across the sea ... í (Deuteronomy 30:12) [Torah] is not found by someone whose self-impression is as high as the sky, or as wide as the sea. (Ibid 55a)

This is why Moses was chosen as the intermediary between God and the Jewish people. The Torah testifies that:
The man Moses was more humble than any person on the face of the earth ... (Numbers 12:3)
Again, to be humble is to be unpretentious, to be unpretentious is to be selfless, to be selfless is to be objective.

However, though it may be clear that objectivity is crucial for becoming wise, it is not quite clear how fear of God leads to such objectivity. But this too becomes understandable when one considers that fear of God is two-tiered.

The most basic fear of God is really a fear of punishment. "If God exists, and He wants me to do this, but instead I do that, then Iím going to get it in the end but good. I better do this instead.", or so the thought process goes. From a Torah perspective, this is not the ultimate level of fear of God, nor, as the following mishnah states, is it to be the prime motivating factor for behaving morally:

Donít be like servants who serve their master on the condition of receiving a reward; rather, be like servants who serve their master not on the condition of receiving a reward. And let the fear of Heaven be upon you. (Ethics of Our Fathers, 1:3)
If fear of God is fear of consequence, then the mishnah has an inherent contradiction. One must say, therefore, that fear of God extends beyond the fear of negative consequence meted out by God, and that the mishnah is trying to reveal the path to true fear of God.

There is only one way to serve a master without thought of reward, and that is if the servant knows his master well, loves his master, trusts his master, and is therefore never frustrated by any task his master requests of him. Likewise, how does one "serve" God without any thought of reward? One must know God well, love Him, trust Him, and not be frustrated by what God requests of him or her.

To know God to this extent, the mishnah alludes, is to attain true fear of God and in the process to obtain objectivity. After all, can one possibly relate to God on this level without a clear understanding and appreciation of the meaning of the details of life, without an intimate understanding of the framework of creation? Hardly, as Maimonides concludes:

And what is the way to love and fear Him? When a person contemplates His actions and His wondrous and great creations, and sees through them His inestimable and unlimited wisdom, immediately he will love Him and greatly desire to know His great Name. (Yad Chazakah, Foundations of Torah, 2:2)
Just one question, though: what does all this have to do with the Tree of Life?

© by Mercava Productions

Next Chapter
Table of Contents
Rabbi Winston's main page
Back to Neveh Homepage

The webspace for the Neveh Zion site has been generously donated by

send your comments to webmaster@neveh.org