Parshat KI TISA: Who is given wisdom?

Love of wisdom is a condition of being given wisdom.

February 22, 2019 06:45
3 minute read.
Parshat KI TISA: Who is given wisdom?

SOLTAN AMIR Ahmad Bath House; Kashan, Iran: ‘If the Holy One, blessed be He, gave wisdom to fools, they would still sit in privies, filthy alleys and bathhouses.’. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, ends with God talking to Moses, a revelation that took place on Mount Sinai and lasted for 40 days.

This is when Moses received the detailed instructions for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the temporary temple that accompanied the Jewish nation during its wanderings until the Temple was built in Jerusalem, as well as the ritual objects it contained.

The detailed instructions even reached the level of the names of the artists in charge of carrying them out: Bezalel and Oholiab “and all the wise-hearted into whose hearts I have instilled wisdom, and they shall make everything I have commanded you” (Exodus 31:6).

The wisdom in a person’s heart is a gift from God, and therefore he must use this wisdom for positive ends, and in this case – the building of the Mishkan.

The greatest of sages in the Land of Israel in the third century was Rabbi Yohanan, an amazing person who was a yeshiva head, a teacher and a leader who was a role model for loving wisdom. In examining these verses, he concluded the following: “The Holy One, blessed be He, does not give wisdom but to one who has wisdom within him.” This is what is seemingly said in the verse we just quoted: “...all the wise-hearted into whose hearts I have instilled wisdom.” It seems wisdom was given to those who already were wise-hearted (Brachot 55).

But, of course, Yohanan’s words cannot be understood this way. The wise person received wisdom before he was wise! Everyone starts out with certain wisdom that was given to him before he showed himself to be a wise person!

The midrash offers an explanation, given by a different wise Jew, from the second century, Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta:
“If the Holy One, blessed be He, gave wisdom to fools, they would still sit in privies, in filthy alleys and in bathhouses, and would not put the wisdom to use. Hence, the Holy One, blessed be He, gives wisdom to the wise, who sit in the chambers of the elders, in synagogues, and in houses of study, and they utilize that wisdom” (Midrash Tanhuma on Vayakhel).

It seems, therefore, that basic wisdom is not more than love of wisdom. A person who appreciates wisdom, knows how to value it and to invest in it is privileged to receive wisdom, but a person who does not value wisdom will not receive wisdom. Love of wisdom is a condition for being given wisdom.

The biography of Rabbi Yohanan, who spoke of love of wisdom, points to his familiarity with this love. The Talmud tells of the last period in his life: Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish was married to Yohanan’s sister and was also his prize student. When Shimon ben Lakish died, Yohanan could not bear the pain.

When they brought him another excellent student to fill the place of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Rabbi Yohanan rejected him, saying: “Ben Lakish, when I would offer a novel interpretation, would challenge me with 24 objections, and I would have to answer him, which led to a fuller understanding of the law. You, by contrast, bring a support for every novel interpretation I offer!”

Striving for truth and loving wisdom were at the core Rabbi Yohanan’s existence, and he could not be consoled after the death of the student who helped him delve deeper into the Torah’s wisdom. The tragic end to this story appears in the Talmud and leaves no room for doubt: He went out and tore his clothes and he cried and said, “Where are you, ben Lakish? Where are you, ben Lakish?” And he shouted until his mind left him. When the rabbis saw this, they prayed that his suffering would end. Their prayers were heard and Rabbi Yohanan died (Bava Metzia 84).

The love of wisdom that guided Rabbi Yohanan led the sages of his generation to eulogize him with the following words: “If a person would give all his worldly possessions for the love with which Rabbi Yohanan loved the Torah, he would be ridiculed” (Leviticus Raba 30).■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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