Help us Grow in Wisdom

I began leading the Passover Seder with my mom when I was young.  For those of you unfamiliar with Seders, there is a section where […]

I began leading the Passover Seder with my mom when I was young.  For those of you unfamiliar with Seders, there is a section where you read about 4 different kinds of children: wise, wicked, simple and unable to ask. The purpose is to teach about different types of people all who need to be taught the lessons of Passover in different ways.

But that is not how it played out at our Seder.  At our Seder I would try to manipulate the reading order so that my older brother would have to read the Wicked Child and that I would read the Wise Child. “How interesting – Jay once again is reading the Wicked Child.” I think that my brother would like to add a reading about the Manipulative/Thinks a lot of Himself Child.

But think about the underlying message connected to the labels of the four children.  Clearly the child to aspire to was the wise child – the chacham. That is the key value.  But, the more I think about wisdom, the more I think we misunderstand it. This morning I would like to explore the question: What does it means to approach life with wisdom?

The Hagadah seems to emphasize that wisdom was knowing every detail connected to Passover.  Teaching how to respond to the wise child, the Hagaddah teaches: “Inform the child of all the laws of Passover.”  Wisdom is about the specifics, the rules and the details.

But is knowledge of details true wisdom?  In our Torah portion there is an interesting phrase describing Betzalel – the primary builder of the tabernacle, and those who assisted him.  The word is chacham lev. In our Etz Chayim, it is translated as “skilled” but that misses the essence of a more literal translation – wise of heart. The pairing of the word chacham – wisdom, with lev – heart is instructive as we seek to understand what it means to pursue wisdom.  While the word wisdom – chochmah alone may have reflected the skills necessary to carry out the details, the word lev adds the human element of heart.  True wisdom is fusing chochma – knowledge, with lev – heart, the emotional connection to what we are doing. Chacham lev is feeling a deep, emotional connection to what you are doing.

Jason understand this.  Talk to him about the volunteer work he does at Friendship Circle – and the passion he feels for helping people with special needs.  The beauty of Friendship Circle is that the madrichim, (the counselors) are given skills, which help people with special needs thrive, connect and learn.  It is the fusion of skills and emotional connection to what you are doing that makes the program so special.  Jason understands that true wisdom combines skills and knowledge together with emotion.

Professor Barry Schwartz, a psychologist from Swarthmore, illustrates this insight in a TED Talk, entitled “Our loss of wisdom.” He offers up a study done by a colleague where he studied janitors.  He noted that the job description listed many skills – mopping, vacuuming, dusting, taking out garbage – but nothing on the job description mentioned human interaction.  When the researchers interviewed janitors about the nature of their jobs, they heard stories that transcended skills, tasks and details.  One janitor named Mike shared how he stopped mopping the floor because a patient was out of bed and wandering the halls – Mike helped him get back to his room.  Charlene spoke of ignoring direct instruction to vacuum the guest lounge because she saw that relatives of a patient who had been there all day waiting for news about their loved ones, had finally fallen asleep.

True wisdom is emotional intelligence in addition to skills.  Are we developing and teaching a concept of wisdom that embraces morality, and the values of kindess and empathy?

A wise heart knows when to make an exception to a rule.  They have enough moral grounding to know when to improvise.

A wise heart always measures any action in terms of its impact on others.  My manipulation of the Seder readings, may have been smart – but it wasn’t wise.  Wisdom starts with caring and getting know people in deep ways.

A wise heart experiments, fails and learns from failures.

To gain a wise heart, we need to be sure to have mentors and teachers.

Brilliance does not make us wise.  I have met many brilliant people who lack the wisdom I am talking about today. I have met many skilled people who can build and construct; but lack the ability to listen, see cues and care.  I have met many people who have kept every rule – but not understood that true wisdom is knowing when to break the rule for a greater good in terms of our fellow human.

Sandor Teszler is a beautiful example of a man who exemplified chacham lev – a wise heart.  Teszler was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who had an extraordinary story of survival. It turns out that the man who was about to kill him had been a recipient of Teszler’s compassion many years before and spared his life.  Through twists and turns, Teslzler ended up in South Carolina. He became a very successful industrialist.  It 1961, in the Deep South where racism was real and part of society, Teszler felt he was re-experiencing what happened to him in Hungary under Nazi rule.  But this time, he had the wise heart to know how to respond.

He investigated to find out the place with the highest incidence of racism in South Carolina and decided to open his textile factory there. The white mayor of the city came to him and said, “I hope you hire white workers.”  Teszler responded, “Send me your best white workers and I will hire them.”  Then the African American pastor came and said, “I hope you hire African American workers.”  Teszler replied, “Send me your best African American workers and I will hire them.”  His first hire was the 16 foremen who would train the rest of the workers that were hired.  He hired 8 African American and 8 white foremen.  On the first day of training, one of the white trainees challenged him: “Is this going to be an integrated work place?  That won’t work out.”  Teszler responded, “You are being paid twice the amount as other foremen in this industry in the region.  This is how we do business.  Any other questions?”  Then when the factory was opened and more workers were hired, one of the workers asked the same question: “Is this going to be an integrated work place?  That won’t work out.”  This time the white foreman responded with the same words Teszler used: “You are being paid twice the amount as other workers in this industry in the region. This is how we do business.  Any other questions?”  And things began to change there as people got to know each other.

In the Talmud the question is asked: “Who is wise?  Two different answers given. In Pirkei Avot, the response is: ha’lomed mi’kol adam – the one who learns from everyone.  The knowledge that we acquire comes through an attitude that there is something to learn from every single person in every moment.  The other answer (Bab. Talmud, Tamid 32a) is “one who foresees the future consequences of his or her acts.” Sandor Teszler was truly wise.  He both learned from everyone and anticipated what would happen in a racist part of South Carolina – knowing how to create a situation where humanity would prevail.  We need more heart wisdom right now!

One more piece to the story of Sandor Teszler.  When he retired, he began taking classes at Wofford University.  He took every course in the catalogue and donated generously.  In 1996, when he was 93 years old, the faulty of the college voted to make him a professor in the humanities.  Teszlor knew that to have a heart of wisdom requires us to have an unquenchable, constant desire to learn more and ultimately do more.  That is the principle that pulls all of this together.  Always strive to learn. Never feel you know everything.  Be unsatisfied with what you know and you pursue more learning – it changes you!

I misunderstood the wise child in the Hagadah.  The wise child in the Hagadah combines wisdom and kindness, embracing an ethic of ongoing learning.   May we continue to develop wise hearts – fusing knowledge and heart, grounding knowledge in care, learning from every person and moment, understanding the impact of our actions, embracing life-long learning with passion – then we will have a heart of wisdom.