Wisdom for the Ages

by Rabbi Scott Shafrin

Every so often, I meet a person who I truly think is wise. I don’t mean that they are smart, or a leader in their field, necessarily. I don’t even really mean that they were great students, but you can sense when speaking to a person of great wisdom that their words carry extra weight and a sense of finitude that is uncommon. I think of my greatest teachers, or a figure like the Dalai Lama or a sage like Maimonides and when I reread their words, I feel like they have unlocked a hidden truth about the universe that gives them insights I could only hope to one day understand. 

One of those singular individuals for me was Mrs. Cook. She was my piano teacher starting when I was 3 years old and going into high school. And while I was certainly not a model student, and often protested against the exercises, the practice schedules, and the frustrating parts of learning a new skill, I still remember the way she often spoke to me, with equal parts compassion, directness, and inspiration. I am not sure I would have stuck with it if it hadn’t been for her influence. She helped me realize a passion in music, and all because she was the sort of person who could not help but give out their knowledge and experience to others. 

I have been thinking of her, and the wisdom she shared with me, this year, as we are approaching the Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Sukkot, on which we will once again read Sefer Kohelet (The Book of Ecclesiastes). For years, I have wrestled with his characterization of wisdom and those who have it. This book is seemingly one of the most contradictory volumes in the Tanakh, at some points decrying life as repetitive, illusory, and all in vain, while at the same time full of unlimited ways to find enjoyment and deep meaning. Nowhere is this clearer that Kohelet’s treatment of wisdom. In the very first chapter, we read that the pursuit of wisdom is like “chasing the wind; for as wisdom grows, so does frustration, and the one who adds to learning, adds to pain” (Kohelet 1:18). Here, he seems to argue that ignorance is bliss. 

But later, in Chapter 7, we are told that “to be in the shade of wisdom is to be in the shade of wealth, and the reward of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the one who has it” (Kohelet 7:11-12). At this point, wisdom is not painted as merely beneficial but as a life-saving necessity. So, which is it: a miraculous boon, enriching one’s life, or a burden, at best a waste of time and at worst a source of strife?

My sense is that while wisdom may at times be hard to bear alone, this only comes from the fact that possessing great knowledge comes with a duty to pass on that knowledge, to use it for the good of those around you. If not, one might find themselves relegated to an island of superiority, disdain, and haughtiness. If you have the knowledge, skills, power, or insight to make a difference in the life of another, you have a responsibility to act, to use those gifts to the benefit of all. 

More than anything, this is what I gain each time I look back at Kohelet. A life lived only for improving ourselves is in many ways missing the point. We each have our gifts, our talents and our unique qualities that could help those around us. I hope that each of us look around for ways to use those skills to do great things so that we can not only realize our own greatest potential but, more importantly, we can improve the world and the lives of those around us.