Knowledge vs. Wisdom
November 18, 2022 / 24 Cheshvan 5783
Of all the Torah portions named after the heroes and heroines of the bible, there is no other parashah that so starkly highlights the importance placed on age, experience, and a life fulfilled than this week’s Chayei Sarah.
I have shared in previous columns the strange distinction of naming this week’s Torah portion in honor of our matriarch Sarah, which in the reading’s second verse announces her death. The sages have explained over the years that this naming is an honorific in memoriam of Sarah’s great life, her dedication to Abraham’s new faith, and her belief in Gd’s vision for a land for her future descendants.
Unfortunately, what is often lost in the study of this week’s text, especially with the glorious introduction of our second matriarch Rebekah, is the acknowledgment that age and experience are considered blessings and virtues in the Torah. In fact, “wisdom” is used synonymously with life experience. In the three decades of working in the field of Jewish education, you would often hear me clarify the difference between knowledge and wisdom. “Knowledge is knowing the information, but wisdom is knowing what to do with the knowledge.”
It is in this week’s Torah portion that we are reminded to validate Judaism’s commitment to our elders. We are a faith that proclaims wisdom as an essential life achievement. We do not highlight the “knowledgeable child” at the Seder table. Nor do we refer to our canon as “knowledge literature.” It is our experiences, in unison with the knowledge learned, which we recognize in our Jewish tradition. It is the wisdom of our elders that has kept our tradition, our faith, and our religion alive for over five millennia. It is the “wise child” who asks the questions that will perpetuate our master story for generations to come. And it is our “wisdom literature” that has generated a culture across generations of study through questions, critical thinking, and applying the lessons learned to the world in which we live.
At a time when our elders are being dismissed for their forgetfulness, their aging bodies, or their desire to spend time reminiscing and passing on their life lessons learned, we need to actively take advantage of this rare opportunity to reestablish our elders as a source of wisdom in our community.
This week’s Torah portion is titled Chayei Sarah (“Sarah’s Life”) as an overt acknowledgment that we have limited time while here on earth, and that even Sarah, who lived to 127 years young, was a woman who grew from “independent strength” (from her birth name “Sarai”) to a woman who provided strength to the future nation of Israel when she was renamed “Sarah.”
May we all take some important time this week to reach out to our aging loved ones, not just to say hello and catch up, but to acknowledge their experience, their wisdom, and their life lessons learned. We have much to gain from listening to their perspectives, and we have much to lose when they will no longer be around to provide us with their insight. Because we are…