Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Wisdom

Dec 29, 2015

Here is a story about something I learned this past semester.

I teach a class on the biblical books of First and Second Kings at our local Jewish day school. These royal chronologies of the ancient kings of Israel and Judea are a kind of scriptural version of Game of Thrones; yet they are unique in their persistent moral teaching that failure to follow God’s rules results in political and physical disaster. The royalty recorded in these books are often being put in their places by God, whose concessions to human kings and their exploits are contingent and grudging at best.

My students are very bright and engaged, but they span different levels of maturity. Studying this part of biblical tradition is hard for them, to say the least, and I have been learning on the job how to help them recognize its relevance for their own lives.  About two weeks ago, I realized that I was faltering in my attempts to stir their passions about the architectural and foreign policy prowess of the great King Solomon. Having spent a lot of time talking with them about Solomon’s reputation for wisdom and wise sayings, I took a detour with them into Proverbs, the biblical wisdom book attributed to him.  Always looking for new ways to help them appreciate ancient, sacred literature, I told them that we would learn some proverbs together. Their job would be to interpret one or more of those wise sayings using different media, such as writing, drawing, music or even sculpture with Play Doh.  I was feeling pretty wise for having dreamed up this idea, for after all, what kid can resist playing with toys and having fun as part of a lesson?  

The first morning of the project, the class and I sat in a circle discussing five proverbs. 

“OK,” I called out, “Listen to this one.  ‘Do not devise harm against your neighbor who lives trustfully with you.’  What do you think this means?”

Hands and answers began flying up, as we talked about the meaning of trust and its abuse, with the most articulate students holding forth on the topic.

“So, let me ask you this,” I continued, “If you were to come up with your own modern proverb about trust, what would it be?”

The room grew a bit quieter, for this was a much harder task to accomplish.  In the circle, one of my students was predictably checking out of the discussion, as he fidgeted uncomfortably, lightly kicking his neighbor’s foot with his own.  Turning to him, I said in my wisest teacher voice, “Would you please cut that out!”

I turned away to listen to some other answers, when suddenly the young man interrupted us, “Oh, I know a saying about trust that I once heard: ‘Trust is lost in buckets and gained in drops.’”

“Wow, that’s a very wise saying”, I said, somewhat surprised.  “Where did you learn that?” 

I figured he would tell me that some adult authority in his young life had taught it to him after he had gotten in trouble, to make a point about the challenge of rebuilding broken trust.

“I heard it on the radio from an announcer during a football game,” he responded. 

All of my presumptions about him and about education were upended for a brief, revelatory moment, as I became the student, he became the teacher, and we shared wisdom which came, somewhat unpredictably, from a sportscaster’s ruminations.  I was ready to write the young man off as hopelessly, predictably lost in adolescent space.  He was far more grounded in down-to-earth, prosaic wisdom than I had imagined.

Because of him, now that school vacation and winter break are here, I am giving renewed attention to another Jewish proverb, one I want to live by more fully in the new year:  

Who is wise?  The one who learns from every human being. 

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.

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