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Wise, Discerning, and Respected - Devarim 5781

Parshat D'varim - July 17, 2021

Some of us here have photographic memories; we read an article and can recall every word the following week. Some of us love doing our research; we hear about some interesting bit of Torah or science and go down a rabbit hole of books and articles. Others of us learn best through our connections with others; we ask questions, listen to stories, and gather a treasure trove of knowledge through our relationships. Together, we make up a congregation of volunteers who care and create, who transform the history of this synagogue and the intricacies of Jewish law into a sacred, comforting space. Together, we are אנשים חכמים ונבנים וידועים לשבטיכם (Deutereonomy 1:13), people who are wise, discerning, and well-known and respected.

In Parashat D’varim, when Moses appoints a fitting group of judges, he instructs the people to find representatives who are חכמים ונבונים וידועים, three words quite similar in meaning. Rashi, quoting the 3rd-century Midrash Sifrei Devarim, explains the difference:

A wise man [חכם] is like a rich money changer: when people bring him [coins] to examine and value, he examines them; and when they do not bring to him, he sits and does nothing. An understanding man [נבון], however, is like a merchant money changer: when they bring him coins to examine, he examines them; and when they do not bring to him, he goes about and buys his own coins [to examine].

Also according to Rashi and the Rabbis, those who are וידועים לשבטיכם, are those who are well-known, respected, and revered in the community. Moses’ judges, then, hold a great deal of knowledge, know where to seek out more knowledge, and have the social capital to utilize that knowledge in community.

Whether in this synagogue space, in the workplace, or in government, any group of people needs that combination of data, resourcefulness, and social intelligence to truly succeed. As much as I know about the halakhah of visiting the sick, I don’t know who to visit without the well-known and loved community members who point me towards those in need. In a hospital setting, we need the diagnostic acumen of doctors, the practical wisdom, the skill of nurses, and compassion from every member of the hospital staff to heal. To run a state, our leaders need to have a knowledge of history in order to creatively discern what can and cannot work in the future; they need to be charismatic enough to earn their citizens’ trust.

In our own lives, when we don’t always have an organized team to work with, we are responsible for incorporating these various modes of wisdom into our every-day being. Whatever we are experts at, we not only have to remember the knowledge we have gained but constantly search out more and re-educate ourselves with the passing of time. In order to apply that knowledge, we have to maintain our compassion and be open to making connections; we have to trust and be trusted in order to make a difference in our world. Just knowing a lot, just developing creative ideas, or just having social capital is often not enough. When we are not able to gather teams of אנשים חכמים נבונים וידועים to move our goals forward, we must empower ourselves to seek out that magical combination of wisdom, understanding, and trustworthiness.

Each and every day, we find ourselves in conversation with others with whom we do not agree. These conversations, I believe, are the most integral places to bring our חכמה בינה וידועה. In any conversation, it is not enough to cite the people or the facts we know, although such statements can be helpful. We must also use our discernment to put ourselves in the place of that other person, to try to understand, even if we cannot agree or even compromise. Over the past few weeks - at our board meeting, in our newsletter, in our Kiddush lunch class, and elsewhere - I have been speaking quite a bit about makhloket, civil yet challenging conversation. Tomorrow, we will explore how our practical wisdom, our search for understanding, and our social capital and intelligence can help us to navigate conversations that may feel outside our comfort zones. For now, I ask you to consider who are those people in your life who compliment your knowledge with creativity, who provide you with the facts you need to learn, and whom you and your community respect enough to pull their weight? How can you use the knowledge you’ve worked hard to gain, how can you pursue even more knowledge, and how can you prove your trustworthiness and your kindness in ways that will contribute to your goals? Just like the judges that Moshe seeks to appoint, we, too, must embrace the depths of our own wisdom; and we, too, must surround ourselves with people who exemplify all of the various facets of that wisdom. Shabbat Shalom.

Mon, January 17 2022 15 Shevat 5782