Friday, January 17, 2020

Our Story is Not Just About Us

I am thinking of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggle that continues to this day.

This week the Torah reminds me that the redemption from slavery began when God takes note of the Israelites’ suffering. 400 years of slavery comes to an end when the pain is finally noticed.

“God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2)

Maya Angelou, the great contemporary American poet, stirs my heart with the words:
Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
I return to the Torah. It reminds and cajoles. Perhaps all it takes is for us to take note of the suffering and pain.

“God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

When will we follow God’s example? When will we begin to take notice?

We too can say:
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Take note. Rise up.

Our march from slavery to freedom is not just about us.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

How to Fight Antisemitism and How to Not

I marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in Sunday's Solidarity March because we face unprecedented times.  Most of us have never experienced this level of antisemitism and most especially the violence that has accompanied recent attacks.  We are struggling to make sense of this increase in antisemitic hate and violence.  And so I would like to offer some advice and guidance for how we might approach these times and how we might fortify our souls. 

1.  We must fight antisemitism wherever, and whenever, it appears.  We must expose it.  We must label it as hate.  We must never be deterred.  Support the many Jewish organizations that help to lead this fight, in particular but not exclusively the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

2. We must not pretend that antisemites only target other Jews.  We must never say things like ultra-Orthodox Jews, like those in Monsey, were targeted because they separate themselves from the larger, American society.  Just because someone visibly identifies as a Jew and just because we have the luxury of taking our kippah off does not mean we should give ourselves the permission of separating ourselves from other Jews.  We are one people whether we acknowledge this or not.  Antisemites make no distinction between Jews.  We should not, we must not, as well. 

3. We must not allow the fight against antisemitism to divide us.   We must stop seeing this struggle through our partisan lenses.  Stop saying it’s all because of this person or that, this leader or that politician. There is plenty of blame to go around.  There is plenty of fault to be found with Democratic leaders and Republican politicians.  Can we at the very least get on the same team in our fight against antisemitism?  Do you think antisemites care who you voted for or who you voted against?  Again, we are one people and we are in this together, Reform and Orthodox, Republican and Democrat, synagogue going and synagogue denying.  Fight the tendency to see each and every antisemitic incident as proof of your political leanings and ask yourself instead, what more can I do to protect the Jewish people, my people?  Let’s stop fighting with each other and start banding together to fight antisemites. 

4. We must not be afraid.  We must not allow rising antisemitism, and in particular these recent violent attacks, to make us constantly afraid.  Of course we should be cautious, but fear and caution and very different things.  The latter is about making reasoned and judicious decisions (by the way, we have an expert security company at the synagogue who looks out for our safety and well-being).  The former is about emotions.  If everything is guided by the emotions of fear then we will never do anything new again.  We will never talk to a new person or make a new friend or venture to a new destination.  Yes, the world is a dangerous place, but it is also a wonderful place.  And seeing that wonder, amidst all these terrors, is a matter of belief and something that you can train yourself to feel.  I refuse to allow my soul to live behind closed gates and doors.  The Jewish people have survived, and outlasted, far worse than our current travails.  Of course, it’s hard to gain this historical perspective, or any perspective for that matter, when you are in the midst of a fight but Jewish history should remind us that while antisemites have often been arrayed against us, we have always persevered.  Have faith!

5. We must not allow antisemitism to define us.  We are Jewish not because of the names they call us or what they say about us, but because we belong to an extraordinary tradition that affirms life and provides meaning to our days.  Our rabbis remind us that it is a commandment to rejoice.  It is a mitzvah to dance with a bride and groom, for example.  So important is this communal obligation that it even takes precedence over the demands of mourning.  Rejoice!  Shout God’s praises.  Our tradition also offers blessings for lightning and thunder.  Imagine that.  That which conjures fear the rabbis said we should instead find there the inspiration to offer praise and thanks.  There are many other examples I could offer that might further illustrate this point, but let’s always recall that we are Jewish because of the meaning and beauty Judaism offers us rather than how we might respond to those who hate us. 

Stay strong.  Remain focused.  Have faith.     
This week we conclude the reading of the book of Genesis.  Most of the time we look at this book in the discrete units comprising the weekly portions.  If we look at this first book of the Torah in its entirety we find instead a remarkable teaching.  The book begins with two brothers, Cain and Abel.  Cain of course kills Abel.  We then follow the tensions between brothers Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau.  In each successive tale the brothers come closer to repairing their fractured relations but never fully realize repair and reconciliation.  And then finally, at the conclusion of this book, Joseph and his brothers are fully reconciled.  Only a few weeks ago Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill him.  Now they forgive each other, are reconciled, and live the remainder of their days in peace.

We must always have hope.  That is our tradition’s most important teaching.  It was true then.  It is also true now.    

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

I Walked in the March Against Antisemitism to Reclaim Our Home

Don George, the preeminent travel writer, offers an insightful observation in The Way of Wanderlust: “Becoming vulnerable requires concentration, devotion, and a leap of faith–the ability to abandon yourself to a forbiddingly foreign place and say, in effect, ‘Here I am; do with me what you will.’ It’s the first step on the pilgrim’s path.”

American Jews have awakened to feelings of abandonment. Our home has become a foreign place. Antisemitism is no longer something that happens over there or something that occurred back then. It is here. It is now.

We debate the causes. It is because American leaders resort to language which demonizes minorities. We argue about the reasons. It is because university professors label our devotions colonial oppressions. We blame politicians–at least those who stand in opposition to our partisan commitments. We say it is because they are unwilling to stand with us or to fight alongside us. We debate with our fellow Jews–often even more vociferously–about their vote, telling them it is all because of who they voted for or who they plan to vote against. We hear, it is because of those Jews not our kind of Jews.

Jews are being murdered when they gather to sing Shabbat prayers. Jews are attacked when they come together to celebrate Hanukkah. Jews are killed when they go shopping for kosher chickens. Where? Here. In America.

What once felt like a welcoming home no longer makes us feel at home.

And so, on Sunday, I joined with my wife and daughter, and twenty-five thousand others and marched across the Brooklyn Bridge....

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Fake News and Real News

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and tell their father that a wild beast killed him. But Joseph soon manages to turn their evil act into good. He becomes ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. His intelligence and prescience, in particular his ability to interpret dreams, help him prepare Egypt for the impending famine. The Egyptians spend seven years storing food and when the famine arrives they have plenty to spare.

His brothers are forced to come to Egypt in search of food. Joseph gives them enough to eat and even more to take back home. He does not reveal his identity. He implements a careful plot in which he frames his brothers and accuses them of stealing to see if they will once again sell their brother Benjamin into slavery. They do not. Joseph reveals his identity. Amid tears, he stammers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?”

The brothers are dumbfounded. The revelation that their brother Joseph who they sold into slavery is now a powerful ruler stuns them. Joseph forgives his brothers and they are reconciled. He instructs them to go back to their father, Jacob, and tell him that he is still alive. Joseph wants the entire family to live together in Egypt. “The brothers went up from Egypt and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan. And they told him, ‘Joseph is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.’ His heart stopped, for he did not believe them.” (Genesis 45)

Jacob’s heart stops when first hearing the news. The news nearly kills him. Some translations suggest it should instead read, “His heart went numb.” The Torah’s intention is definitive. The news is impossible for Jacob to comprehend. To believe it would mean that his other sons lied to him so many years ago.

At that time, when Jacob first heard their tale about Joseph’s fate, namely that he was killed by wild beasts, Jacob nearly dies. He says, “I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol (the place of the dead).” Now Jacob dies once again after hearing the shattering news. His son is alive.

His sons lied.

The Rabbis comment: “This is the fate of a liar; even when telling the truth, a liar is not believed. (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 30)

I wonder. Can habitual liars ever be believed?

We live in an age when we are unable to even agree upon the facts. Each side of the political divide adheres to a different set of truths. They accuse the other of telling lies. Our hearts grow increasingly numb to truth. We remain trapped in between, unable to discuss, and even debate, solutions to the many problems, and dilemmas, we face because we are unable to agree on the underlying truths upon which any discussion, and reasoned debate, must begin. Instead we spend our time, and our energy, arguing about what is fake and what is real. Our debates spin around who is lying and who is telling the truth.

How can we navigate ourselves, and our nation, back to truth?

I continue to weep for Jacob. He endured so many years mourning for his beloved son. After discovering that Joseph lives, he must endure the knowledge that his other sons are liars. And yet, after some time, “the spirit of their father Jacob revived.” And he speaks:


My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.” (Genesis 45)

Truth endures.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

What's in a Name

Customarily we call people to the Torah using their Hebrew names. “Yaamod Shmaryah ben Tzemach v’Masha.” But we go about our days using our English names. “Stand up Steven Moskowitz.”

Except at synagogue, or perhaps at weddings and funerals, we rarely call people by their Hebrew names. So why are people surprised that our patriarch Joseph goes by an Egyptian name instead of the Hebrew name his parents gave him?

The Torah reports: “Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah.” (Genesis 41) In ancient Egyptian, this means “God speaks; he lives.” First Pharaoh appoints Joseph as his number two, in charge of shepherding Egypt through the impending famine. Then he gives him a proper Egyptian name, as well as a wife, by the way.

Like Joseph we live in two worlds. We carry two names. Our identities are hyphenated. American-Jew. Which name we rely on depends upon the circumstance. Do I identify as a Jew? Or should I be called by my American identity? It depends on who we are standing beside. It depends upon the environment.

The Israeli poet, Zelda, suggests it depends on even more. We have far more than just two names. She writes:
Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents

Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles
and given to him by his clothing

Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by his walls

Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors

Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing

Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love

Everyone has a name
given to him by his feasts
and given to him by his work

Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness

Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.
Her poem is beautiful in its simplicity. It is thought-provoking, and at times haunting. How many encounters, how many circumstances offer us new names? We are left wondering.

How do we wish to be known?

The rabbis offer an exclamation.

“The crown of a good name is superior to them all.” (Pirke Avot 4)

And that works in Hebrew or in English—and even in Egyptian—or any language for that matter.

It’s really all about earning a good name.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Let's Be Proud...and Be Careful

Although the true history of Hanukkah recounts a bloody civil war between Jewish zealots led by Judah Maccabee with their fellow Jews enamored of Greek culture, we prefer to tell the story of the miracle of oil.  Here is that idealized version.

A long time ago, approximately 2,200 years before our generation, the Syrian-Greeks ruled much of the world and in particular the land of Israel.  Their king, Antiochus, insisted that all pray and offer sacrifices as he did.  He outlawed Jewish practice and desecrated the holy Temple.  But our heroes, the Maccabees, rebelled against his rule.  After nearly three years of battle, the Maccabees prevailed.  They recaptured the Temple.

When the Jews entered the Temple, they were horrified to discover that their holiest of shrines had been transformed and remade to suit pagan worship.  They declared a dedication (the meaning of hanukkah) ceremony.   Soon they discovered that there was only enough holy oil to last for one of the eight day long ceremony.  Still they lit the menorah that adorned the sanctuary.  And lo and behold, a great miracle happened there.  The oil lasted not for the expected single day but for all eight days.    

The rabbis therefore decreed that we should light Hanukkah candles on each of this holiday’s nights, beginning on the first evening, on the twenty fifth of Kislev.  (The customs of spinning dreidels and eating foods fried in oil came much later.)  The rabbis pronounced: “It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one’s house on the outside, so that all can see it. If a person lives upstairs, he places it at the window most adjacent to the public domain.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b)

Contrary to the contemporary ethic of privacy where what we do in our own homes is not to be publicized to the outside world, the rabbis instruct us that we must display the menorah so that others may see it.  Why?  So that the world might also learn about the miracle of Hanukkah.  So that others might see that God performs wonders.

Are not our Jewish identities meant to be hidden?  No, the rabbis declare.  They are intended to be proclaimed to the world.  Even though everyone else appears to be celebrating other holidays at this time of year, we reaffirm that we have our own unique faith, and that we are proud to publicize it.  The rabbis counsel that we should proudly proclaim our Jewish faith—at least during the eight days of Hanukkah.  That is the message of the Maccabees.  That is the import of their revolt against those who wished to suppress Jewish practice.  

But what happens if Jews live in a time and place when placing the menorah in their windows could be dangerous?  The rabbis decree: “And in a time of danger he places it on the table and that is sufficient to fulfill his obligation.”  What should we do now?  Where should we place the menorah today?  Is our own era a time of danger? 

Recently I met with a friend who was visiting from Israel.  He told me that he now covers his kippah with a baseball hat when going out to restaurants in New York.  He is afraid.  I heard as well of young couples who second guess their decision to send their children to a Jewish nursery school for fear that it could be a target of antisemitic attacks.  After years of increasing attacks, after the most recent Jersey City murders and the assault at Indiana University to name a few, fear has come to dominate our discussions of Jewish identity.  Where is it safe to declare our Jewishness?

Should we hide our identity?  Can the Talmud, and Jewish tradition, help us to figure out what constitutes a real danger?  Later authorities suggest that the rabbis understood danger to mean when Jewish practice is outlawed, such as during the Maccabean revolt.  Only then should we move our menorahs to “safer ground.”  But who gets to decide what dangerous means?  Our rabbis?  Our tradition?

Instead it is each of us. Danger is of course a matter of perception.  It is in truth more about feelings than threats.  If a person is afraid, then the threat is real. 

I have been thinking that perhaps my frequent trips to Israel have provided me with some helpful measures of strength and resolve.  The modern era grants us something that our ancient rabbis could never have imagined: a sovereign Jewish state, a state that can fight back against our enemies.  We look to a state that can fortify us and offer us even greater courage in the face of this growing tide of antisemitic hate.

This is why I found it so surprising that it was my Israeli friend who now expresses fear.  Perhaps it is even more a matter of where one feels at home.  If we feel at home we are less likely to feel afraid. 

Today we are called once again to fight back against antisemitism.  Our day demands that we never allow this hate even the space to breathe.  We must stand up.  We must be forever proud.  But we must also be prudent.  The rabbis’ caution is well taken.

The most important point of course is that regardless of where we decide to place the menorah, regardless of whether or not we are afraid, we light the candles.  Find that place.  Find the place where you are comfortable proudly declaring your Jewish faith.  And there light the menorah.  This year most especially, this holiday of Hanukkah demands no less. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Kiss of Reconciliation

The Torah scroll is beautifully calligraphed. Each of its letters is meticulously drawn. It takes a Torah scribe one year to fashion a single scroll. Some letters have small, stylized crowns. The chapters and verses are perfectly arranged in columns, unfettered by punctuation marks. Although each scroll is different because it is fashioned by a different scribe, the letters and words of every Torah are calligraphed in a similar manner.

“Moses” looks the same in every Torah scroll. There is the mem, the first letter of Moshe. Then the shin, adorned with its crowns, and finally the heh. Like all the other words in the Torah, there are no vowels below the letters or cantillation marks above the letters. In fact, only a very small fraction of words in the Torah have additional notations.

Very few words have marks above the letters. This week we discover one of these unique examples: “Vayishakeyhu—and he kissed him.” Calligraphed above each of its letters is a dot. Here is the story that surrounds this kiss. Our forefather Jacob stole the birthright from his brother Esau. Esau then threatened to kill him. Jacob runs and builds a life for himself with his uncle. He marries (several times) and fathers many children. Now, many years later, the brothers are to be reunited, and we hope, reconciled.

This week we read, “Jacob himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33) The brothers appear reconciled. What led to the reconciliation? Was it Jacob’s act of humbling himself before his brother? Was it Esau’s embrace? The seventh century Masoretes, who developed the traditions of calligraphy with which a Torah is scribed, suggest it was the kiss.

Holding his brother close, Esau kissed Jacob and kissed him again and again, until they both wept. The Rabbis concur: “The word ‘kissed’ is dotted above each letter in the Torah’s writing. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said: this teaches that Esau felt compassion in that moment and kissed Jacob with all his heart. (Bereshit Rabbah) Reconciliation can only be achieved when people bring their heart—in its entirety. Repair involves compassion for the other. It necessitates forgiveness. And these must derive from the heart.

A kiss can be perfunctory. The Torah’s calligraphy suggests that, in this case it is anything but. A kiss should be punctuated by intention. Here it offers the compassion and forgiveness that leads to the weeping of reconciliation. The brothers stand together.

We are of course the descendants of Jacob. The tradition teaches that our enemies are the descendants of Esau. I wonder if our ancient calligraphers intended to teach that reconciliation between brothers is our most cherished hope and prayer.

Why else would they notate this word in a different manner than all other words?

Embedded in the kiss Esau offers Jacob is our tradition’s hope that the descendants of Esau will one day make peace with the descendants of Jacob. One day, we pray, we might make peace with our enemies, who, our tradition reminds us, are, and will always be, our brothers.

The Torah wishes to punctuate this hope for reconciliation and repair. One day brothers, and all humanity, will be at peace with each other.

And we will embrace, kiss, and finally weep as one family.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Finding Our Shul and Our Path

Among my favorite, and often quoted, books is Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. (The title alone is enough to get me to pick it up again and again.) Solnit offers a number of observations about travel, nature, science and discovering ourselves. She begins: “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” The question is the beginning of apprehension. (And this is exactly why apprehension has two meanings.) Journeying, and the curiosity that must drive it, leads to wisdom.

Uncertainty is where real learning begins.

Our hero Jacob stands at the precipice of an uncertain time. He is running from home. He has just tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. Esau has promised to kill him. Their mother, Rebekah, urges Jacob to leave and go to her brother, Laban. Their father Isaac instructs him, “Get up! Go to Paddan-Aram.”

Jacob is alone. He wanders the desert wilderness. Soon he stops for the night. Jacob dreams. He sees angels climbing a ladder that reaches to heaven. He hears God’s voice saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham, and your father Isaac. Remember. I am with you.” (Genesis 28). Jacob awakes. He recognizes God’s presence. He has found God in this desolate, and non-descript landscape. He exclaims, “How awesome is this place. This is none other than beth-el, the house of God.”

Rebecca Solnit again. She leans on Tibetan wisdom: “Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves.” Is it possible, I wonder, that a journey precipitated by feelings of anxiety, bewilderment, and even abandonment (I imagine our forefather thought, “Now my brother wants to kill me. My father tells me to get out. Where am I to go? What am I to do?”) leads to finding one’s bearings? Jacob’s uncertain path is becoming clearer.

In Tibetan, the word for path is “shul.” Solnit continues:
[Shul is] a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by—a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there. A path is a shul because it is an impression in the ground left by the regular tread of feet, which has kept it clear of obstructions and maintained it for the use of others.
It seems to me that this is how we also view shul (the Yiddish term for synagogue). It is a path left by others. And now, I am left wondering.

How does our shul not become an “impression of something that used to be there”? If synagogue is only about our imaginations of yesterday, then how do we carve our own path? If authenticity is only driven by what we believe our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did, and did not do, then how do we create our own impression, in our own image? Too much of what we expect, and want, from our synagogues revolves around the question of how they honor the past. “There is not enough Hebrew at that synagogue” is, for example, a common refrain.

I am thinking. How can we carve a path while looking backward? How do we find our way when looking back, at some impression of yesteryear? How then do we find our own shul?

It is not just a building. It is not as well a destination. It cannot only be the impression made by others, long ago.

It is instead a path.

Jacob awakes, startled, but perhaps more aware. He exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place.”


Exactly where you are standing.

Just leave the door open.

And heed the voice.

Get up. Go.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Thanksgiving Poems

As we prepare to gather with family and friends in celebration of Thanksgiving and give thanks for the plentiful food, and wine, arranged before us, we pause to acknowledge the privilege and blessing of calling this country our home.

I turn to my poetry books. Recently I discovered Samuel Menashe.

Samuel Menashe was born in New York City in 1925 to Russian Jewish immigrants. He served in the United States infantry during World War II and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. After taking advantage of the GI bill, he traveled to France and earned his PhD from the Sorbonne. Later he taught poetry and literature at CW Post College. He died in 2011. He is a relatively unknown American poet.

Perhaps reading his poetry might help to remind me of how America has inspired Jews and given rise to untold Jewish creativity. His poems, at times feel playful, but then again religious.

I offer three poems:
Dusk of the year
Nightfalling leaves
More than we knew
Abounded on trees
We now see through

Eyes open to praise
The play of light
Upon the ceiling—
While still abed raise
The roof this morning
Rejoice as you please
Your Maker who made
This day while you slept,
Who gives you grace and ease,
Whose promise is kept.
‘Let them sing for joy upon their beds.’— Psalm 149

There is never an end to loss, or hope
I give up the ghost for which I grope
Over and over again saying Amen
To all that does or does not happen—
The eternal event is now, not when.
Each day is indeed a blessing. Every day is an occasion for giving thanks.

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.