The Light of our Existence
December 23, 2022
In previous columns (Chayei Sarah 5783 & Emor 5781), I have shared my go-to maxim, “knowledge is knowing the information, but wisdom is knowing what to do with the knowledge.” However, while studying this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, I had the opportunity to gain new insight into this perspective through a wonderful Midrash (rabbinic interpretation) shared below.
But first, let’s prepare the scene… After years of anguish and suffering at the hands of jealous siblings, merchants, and eventual slave owners, Joseph is finally brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams. Although none of the Egyptian oracles are able to interpret them (or willing to risk being wrong), Joseph, without hesitation, interprets both of Pharaoh’s dreams; the seven hearty and healthy cows being devoured by the seven undernourished and emaciated cows and the seven strong and plump ears of corn being consumed by seven thin and scrawny ears.
It is in response to Joseph’s insights, as well as Joseph’s humble deferral to Gd as the true interpreter of the dreams that Pharaoh calls Joseph both “understanding and wise” (Genesis 41:39), and it is based on this dual acknowledgment that our rabbis wrote the following Midrash:
A person of “understanding” (navon) is one who possesses insight and subject matter expertise; a “wise” person (chacham) is one who possesses foresight and good judgement. A navon who is not a chacham is like the great unarmed warrior; a chacham who is not a navon is like a weakling housed in defensive armor; a navon and chacham however, is a mighty and well-armored warrior.
In my adage, I have always assumed that the wise person already possessed the knowledge, but maybe, as the rabbis so eloquently described, there are times when the wisdom of foresight lacks the knowledge of insight.
As we celebrate Hanukkah this week, I have had the privilege and opportunity to attend several community-wide Hanukkah events. Whether it was the tremendous gathering of San Antonians at the Riverwalk on Hanukkah’s first night, the PJ Library families at SeaWorld on the second night, or the Jewish Community Campus Hanukkah menorah lighting by the Jewish Federation staff on the third night, every evening has given me the opportunity to reflect on both the holiday and our San Antonio Jewish community.
We have a wonderful and bright light shining across our great community. We have demonstrated both understanding and wisdom in keeping this flame burning bright over recent generations. And yet, when I raise my vision to see what lies ahead for our San Antonio Jewish community, I am fearful of the darkness of the unknown through which we will need to pass.
How will we battle the rise of Jewish illiteracy? Are we prepared to fight the constant forces of antisemitism in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces? Will we rise beyond our internal struggles and come together as a united Jewish community?
On the other hand, although I might see darkness ahead, I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, “The proper response, as Hanukkah teaches, is not to curse the darkness but to light a candle.” Therefore, may we gather in these final days of the Hanukkah holiday and remind ourselves that our very existence in the world today is a miracle. Even though wealthier empires, mightier sovereignties, and larger nations have come and gone, the Jewish people still remain. Because we are…
Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach,