- Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Simple, Bourgeois Wisdom
Seeking the Good
First of the Seven Weeks to Rosh HaShanah (coinciding with Torah Portion Va-etchanan)
You have all experienced the pain and suffering of life. Our tradition assumes that life will sometimes hurt. Our tradition also assumes that with some degree of wisdom and virtue, we can suffer less, and cause others less suffering. With wisdom and virtue we can maximize the good – love and beauty, truth and justice. Even moments of holiness and transcendence. Wisdom and virtue guard the holy center towards which we reach. Wisdom and virtue guard the beauty and wonder that are potential in our lives with each other. Wisdom and virtue should govern our lives, so that our inner lives and the lives of others can flourish.
What is the path to wisdom? I have feared to address this question head on. Shall I summarize the considerable wisdom of Western (Abrahamic religions and Greco/Roman philosophy) traditions, laced with what I know of the Eastern traditions? Do I summarize my own teachings over the years, as I have tried to help myself and others through the scabrous maze that life can be?
As I contemplate the seven weeks between the 9th of Av (the low point of the Hebrew calendar) and the High Holy Days (the apex), I have decided to try to cut a path through the vale of thorns. It is not the best path or the only path. It is the path that comes to mind. As I think of people struggling in marriages and families, or just within, trying to find their way to inner flourishing and well being, I ask myself: are there steps that are in common, or necessary, for every journey? Maybe not every journey. Some folks start out a little ahead. Some folks need some remedial work just to get to the starting line. But all in all, what I want to share over the next seven weeks (sure to be amended as I go along) might form a path to simple wisdom. Not exalted guru on the mountaintop wisdom. Simple urban or suburban, bourgeois wisdom.
Here goes. I think wisdom begins with respect. Respect means, minimally, experiencing and acting on the intrinsic value of another human being, even your own intrinsic value as a human being. Of the many things a person of wisdom might know, our own intrinsic value and that of another human being is at the core. Notice, I don’t say “the intrinsic value of human life.” That is important, so important that nearly every decent person holds that value. I have seen decent people, though, who value human life, act in hurtful ways to other people who frustrate them, from the family out to politics. It seems that some people respect human life, but not specific other human beings. I have seen what seems to be decent people, in the name of their cause, ridicule and demean those with whom they disagree. It would be hard for me to say that a person who ridicules and demeans others is a person of wisdom. Maybe smart, but not wise.
How much the more so in relationships with others. People ask me, “why is my husband/wife/child/parent/co-worker/employee/boss so annoying?” You will predict that I would in turn ask if this were a question or a complaint. If a question: human behavior is driven mostly by human interests (what people want) and personality (what people are like). That is why they can be so annoying.
The question, of course, is a complaint, and the complaint is actually this: other people are not what I want them to be. They are not complying.
In general, a person of wisdom does not spend their time trying to make other people comply with their will. I will ask you this. Let’s say a person has a boss (or spouse, or parent) who is acting in hurtful ways. Does a wise person anger, depress, resent, act passive aggressively? Hard to imagine that. A wise person will try, as much as possible, to create clear, firm boundaries, understand what is going on (even it if is irrational), and try to ameliorate the situation. In general, a wise person, even under provocation, will maintain composure and act respectfully. If they have to get out of a situation, get out, but not in anger and not punitively. In our day-to-day lives, I have never seen acting disrespectfully to others make anything better.
Why does the Torah demand that we respect our mothers and fathers? Because evolutionary psychology requires that teenagers experience their parents as super annoying or they would never move out. The immature, disrespectful teenager does not have the wisdom or virtue to know that one can have anger, but one ought not speak or act in anger. Respect is to recognize that even people who annoy us, frustrate us or anger us have intrinsic value, and that we should restrain our urge to disrespect them. Ask ourselves what we want them to say, or do (specifically, I might add) and find a way to get what we want, while still experiencing this other person as holding intrinsic value as a human being.
I don’t mean this is some lofty, other-worldly way. I mean, simply, that we should speak and act toward each other with care and respect, even when drawing clear and firm boundaries. Now, you might say, “but Rabbi Finley, doesn’t respect assume and require many other things?” Maybe so. But start here – speak and act with self-respect and be respectful to others for the next week, and see what happens.
Imagine a wise person. Imagine their comportment of self-respect and how much respect they afford others. Pretty awesome.