Assif is doing a learning series in memory of Maureen Kendler, teacher, friend and mentor to many of us here. She was a literature teacher and one of her favourite books was The Book of Job, and so in her memory we have been learning it together in a six-part series. We’re half way there. I’m doing from chapter 22 -till chapter 37. Then Ariel is doing the next section and finally RJW is wrapping it up.
Because it’s been a while since we spoke about it, and because there may be new people here, I’ll do a quick recap. It’s a great book of literature, 42 chapters long. Basically, Job is an innocent, successful man who fears god and shuns evil. Then very bad things happen to him. God and the devil are testing him by making him suffer. Down on earth, Job’s friends try to comfort him. They say all kinds of things like if you were truly good, God wouldn’t have punished you. Although they try very hard, they fail. Job finally gets it and says therefore I recant and relent being nothing but dust and ashes. Al afar v’eifar. Somehow finally the light has gotten in through the cracks. He passes the test. He becomes a wise, wealthy man, who fears god and shuns evil. And for the rest of his life, all is good.
The structure for the middle part of the friends trying to comfort him is intriguing. It has three cycles. In each cycle, Job debates first with Elipha, then with Bildad and then with Zophar. Andrew Cohen drew the short straw, and he had to explain the first two cycles where the friends are not being helpful. Lucky for me, the section I am looking at includes the third round of debates and chapter 28 which is a beautiful poem on wisdom. Let’s dive in.
In the third cycle of debates it almost but not quite follows the structure of the first two cycles. Elipha and Bildad are trying their luck to cheer up Job up with less than useful comments like if you pray to god he will listen to you and the things you ask for will be fulfilled. Thanks Elipha.
Or this sad point of view from Bildad: How can one born of women be cleared of guilt. Unsurprisingly Job sinks into a deep depression. (As my father would say, with friends like this, who needs enemas) Strangely, in this cycle, there is nothing from Zophar. Instead, there is an exquisite poem of wisdom that I highly recommend you read in full, and that is chapter 28.
The pshat version of this chapter is all about going into the earth mining it for treasures. It says human can take out precious metals from the earth. They can probe the depths of the earth, dig tunnels and take out the gold dust, the sapphires and the iron. Barzel mei afar yikach.
It is saying: Man can dig for gold under the earth but man can't just dig for wisdom. All wisdom and the path to it is sometimes beyond human knowledge. In fact, I’d say for me, wisdom is usually beyond my knowledge. Wisdom can’t be summoned at will. It comes when it comes, and it can come to light in the very midst of our struggles and suffering.
To understand this section of the book of Job, I need to explain the difference between wisdom and understanding.
I also need to explain the difference with getting it with your eyes and with your ears.
When I talk, you hear me and what I am trying to say and you understand me.
But really you need to see what I am saying for yourself, like a thunderbolt from the sky as Rambam would say.
I also need to explain the difference between wisdom and understanding.
Bina is the Hebrew for understanding and chochmah is the word for wisdom.
Chochmah or wisdom is the thing that is outside of ourselves. God is chochmah.
Bina is the human part. We understand profoundly that which is true.
Where can wisdom be found? What is the source of understanding? The book of Job asks.
It is hidden from the eyes of the living.
Chapter 28 ends with this: He said to man:
See. Fear of God is wisdom. To shun evil is understanding.
All wisdom is too big for us. The most we can do is to understand our place in creation and as a consequence avoid doing bad things. In other words, I want to behave well because of my perception of where I fit into the universe.
In other words, it’s a flash of knowing I am not the universe that was, is and every could be, but I am currently in that universe. It’s an unconditional understanding that there are no personal rewards or prizes for your good behaviour from God. There is no if…then.
It starts with being in the dust, having awe of god, to see we are not the centre of the vast and complex universe that is being constantly created before our eyes. What we understand from that is that as living actors in this magnificent creation, it’s on us not to do bad things.
The book of Job teaches us that the best thing you can do for a friend who is suffering is to stand by them, and help them specifically with things they may need, foot-cream, meals, and tissues for the tears or a cure for cancer. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to show up to their pain, without trying to fix it for them or to share your pity. The worst thing you can do is to point out that they are being punished for their sins by God. That’s not true or wise.
And now the Maureen Kendler level of interpretation… Maureen’s gift was to see the treasure, the gold and the iron in all of us even when we couldn’t see it ourselves.
When she talked to me, I felt she believed that what I had to say was worth saying. And I believed her and it was life-changing.
I would like to pass on her gift to me to you today. You have gold in you although you might not always see it. Maureen isn’t alive to see it. But I am. And so are you.