Thursday, November 21, 2019

At What Age are We Called Wise?

If we pray every day and offer the tradition’s prescribed set of prayers, we begin with the singing of psalms and the recitation of blessings. The prayer book’s philosophy is that a soul can be both fortified, and unburdened, by the shouting of blessings and praises for our God. Only then do we move on to our requests. And the very first request we make of God is the following:
You grace humans with knowledge and teach mortals understanding. Graciously share with us Your wisdom, insight and knowledge. Blessed are You, Adonai, who graces us with knowledge.
Before asking for health or even forgiveness, we beseech God, and say, “Please grant us wisdom, insight and knowledge.” This is a curious place to begin. Why is this the first of our asks? Why begin the emotional exercise of prayer with a request for the intellect?

Why begin our litany of requests by asking for knowledge, insight and wisdom? Knowledge is something that is gained by study and learning. Insight, which other prayer books translate as understanding, is something that is acquired after much discussion and thought. And wisdom is attained only after years and years of experience.

Perhaps we begin with these words because the rabbis who authored these prayers believed that all knowledge, insight and wisdom begin with God. I now wonder. Can a prayer really be a prayer if it does not connect the mind to the spirit? In the Judaism that I love, and teach, head and heart must be combined. There should be a unity of thought and deed. I stand against thoughtless actions.

Then again, I find that my mind often wanders during our prayers. I discover myself singing the words but thinking of the day’s events or my weekend’s plans. I sing “Adon olam asher malach…” but my thoughts turn to the morning’s bike ride (I crushed that hill) or the evening’s dinner plans (I am looking forward to the tuna sashimi).

Is the unity of thought and deed possible all the time, in every moment?

I pray again, “God, please grant us wisdom, insight and knowledge.”

It is a never ending struggle. It is a daily endeavor. Can knowledge, insight and wisdom be granted by God? Are they not in our hands? Perhaps this first request, this first prayer is a reminder of what I must do each and every day. Commit myself anew to the attainment of knowledge. Read something new. Of insight. Ponder the words I read again and again. But wisdom?

This cannot be achieved in a single moment, or by the performance of a solitary act. It is not acquired by carefully reading a certain book, no matter how important or holy that book might be. Even though the Torah is read again and again, and over and over, wisdom still eludes us.

Wisdom is gained only after years and years. It is the sum total of countless experiences. Can a twenty year old ever be called wise? Can a fifty year old really be imbued with wisdom?

At what age is one be deemed wise?

At seventy? At eighty three? A hundred and twenty?

We read, “Abraham was now old, advanced in years.” (Genesis 24) In Hebrew, zaken, old is associated with wisdom. The rabbis teach that zaken points to an acronym, “zeh kanah hokhmah—this one has acquired wisdom.” Old is not a measure of years but instead a sign of wisdom. Zaken does not mean aged but wise.

And how old is Abraham? 175 years.

I have acquired this knowledge. I have gained this insight. I have achieved this wisdom.

Each of us has many, many more years to go before attaining wisdom and before being called, zaken.

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