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December 21, 2006

Humbling Wisdom

Parshat Miketz (Genesis 41:1 - 44:17)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/humbling_wisdom_20061222

A number of years ago I had to fly from Los Angeles to Cleveland, with a stop in St. Louis. The plane was supposed to leave at 8:45 a.m. and arrive in Cleveland in the late afternoon. But due to a mechanical problem our flight didn't leave LAX until 1:30 p.m., which put our Cleveland arrival at midnight on the first night of Chanukah.

As I stood on the very long line to change our tickets for the connecting flights, the fellow ahead of me dressed like Crocodile Dundee turned around, looked at me and said in a deep Midwestern accent, "Hi, my name is John, and boy are you in trouble."

What a way to introduce oneself, I thought. He continued, "You are going to be arriving after sunset."

At first I had no idea what he meant. Looking at my watch, I replied, "The way things are going it might even be tomorrow morning."

"So what are you going to do?" he asked.

"Sleep," I answered.

"No, I mean what are you going to do about lighting candles?" he said. "Isn't tonight the first night of Chanukah?"

I thought for a moment that maybe "John" was a real Torah scholar who was raising a legal question about how late one can light Chanukah candles.

Although most authorities agree that one can kindle the menorah as long as a minimum of two people are still awake and can see the lights, perhaps he was referring to the opinion that you can kindle only if people are still walking outside.

But then looking again at him, I said to myself, "This fellow probably isn't even Jewish let alone knowledgeable about halacha."

Propelled by curiosity, I asked, "By the way are you Jewish?"

"Not at all," he answered. "I was born Presbyterian, and now I am a Baptist. Maybe one day I will become Jewish. What do you think of that?"

Deciding it would be best not to answer, I acted Jewish and responded with a totally different question: "How do you know so much about Judaism and Chanukah?"

With total seriousness he said, "You can't claim to be a religious Christian without knowing Judaism. All religious wisdom starts with Judaism."

The truth is that we can find an elementary concept of wisdom in this week's Torah portion.

Pharaoh recognizes Joseph's uncanny ability to correctly interpret his dreams.

Almost in awe of the profound knowledge that Joseph reveals, the Egyptian monarch declares: "After God has informed you of all this, there is no one so understanding and wise as you" (Genesis 41:39).

Joseph is the first man in the Bible to be called "wise." But what, asks 20th century biblical commentator Benno Jacob, was so special about Joseph's wisdom that "all the wizards of Egypt and all its wise men" didn't possess? The answer, he says, is obvious from the text: "Joseph's wisdom defeated that of the Egyptians because it emanated from God; it was wisdom that led directly from God to him, and is fundamentally identical with fear of God.... It presents the genuinely Jewish combination of brains and heart."

True wisdom, Benno Jacob argues, recognizes first that there is a God, and second that He is the source of all our talents and wisdom. There is no room for the haughty who think they are to be respected and worshipped because of their brains or special talents. Humility is the only possible response for men, for all emanates from God.

I remember that in my first position as rabbi when I was a young rookie just out of rabbinic school, one congregant publicly criticized me to the other members because I quoted my rabbinic teachers whenever I had to decide a question of Jewish law. This member opposed me by questioning, "Doesn't Muskin have any opinions of his own?"

When I was informed of this criticism I was asked for a response. I replied with humor, "I don't know, I will have to ask my teachers."

After the laughing stopped I answered that I was actually honored by the comment. The truth is that as soon as we think we know all the answers and we do not need to turn to those with more knowledge and experience, we have demonstrated our ultimate ignorance.

Joseph taught us that our knowledge all comes from God in the first place, and if we have an opinion it better be His.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

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