What is the Beginning of Wisdom?

June 8, 2024

What is the Beginning of Wisdom?

May 29, 2023

Chip’s Note: Rabbi Daniel has become a good friend since his time in Baja and has been helping to spread the word that midlife can be a chrysalis, not a crisis.

After attending a week-long session at the Baja campus in January 2023, I decided to take the lessons learned and to bring them to my congregants, but with a twist. I would layer Jewish wisdom on top of what Chip, Jeff and Christine taught us during that inspiring week. 

As we came to the end of our year of learning, I looked to Jewish teachings to create certificates for the 23 “Midlife Mavens” - as we called them - who completed their course of learning. One phrase that caught my attention was, “ רֵאשִׁ֤ית חׇכְמָה יִרְאַת יְהֹוָה - Reishit Chochmah Yirat YHWH” (Psalms 111:10). Often translated asThe beginning of wisdom is fear of God,” I quickly realized it needed a re-write. 

What might, “fear of God,” possibly mean?

Fear, or yirah, in the Biblical sense is not about being afraid, panicked or terrified.  Rather, it connotes awe, reverence or wonderment. As MEA teacher and U.C. Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner explains it, awe is a profound emotional experience that expands our perception of the world and makes us feel connected to something greater than ourselves. 

Instead of translating yirah as “fear,” I choose, “awe.” “The beginning of wisdom is awe…”

But what of the other part, “… of God.”

I realized this might be more challenging and complicated but then, at MEA in Baja, we learned to balance rocks! 

The Hebrew word for “God” in Psalm 111 is more than a powerful white man with a long beard who intervenes in our lives (that image has its roots in Western art and culture that depicted authority figures as older and white along with other cultural and historical biases). It is four Hebrew letters, “Yud, Heh, Vav, Heh.” We do not know how to pronounce it. This name of God was said once a year, in private, by the High Priest. If anything, the pronunciation is that of breathing, as in Yoga or meditation, with the first and third letters being an inhalation and the second and fourth being an exhalation. 

As to its meaning…. The best translation I’ve read is “is-ness.” Rabbi Art Green, a scholar of Jewish mysticism says that the name is a representation of the Divine presence and the essence of existence itself. He uses the term “is-ness,” emphasizing the idea that it represents the pure existence or essence of being. This interpretation highlights the timeless and eternal nature of the divine presence.

With this in mind, I see the word as representing the ultimate present tense. In Hebrew grammar there is no present tense for the verb “to be.” There is past and future, but the closest there is to the present tense of “to be,” is this four letter name of God; hence, “is-ness.” YHWH is the ultimate present tense. Our task is to try to be as present in time as possible so as to recognize it and to be in it. Or, as Ram Dass taught, “Be. Here. Now.”

YHWH or Is-ness is also not found in a single place. To the mystics, it’s all God, it’s all one. We are interconnected to all that is. And not just you and me but every bit of matter, even our thoughts and dreams. Einstein once wrote, “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’... He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” It’s all one and it’s all now.

Which brings us back to the phrase, “The beginning of Wisdom is fear of God.” This translation really does disservice to what the Psalmist was trying to convey. It’s much more than being afraid of Big Daddy. 

Maybe a better translation is, “The beginning of wisdom is being in awe of All.” That’s how we start to grow in wisdom - by being in awe of all that is right in front of us.

That’s what I’ll write on their certificates!

-Rabbi Daniel Gropper

Rabbi Daniel Gropper, DD serves as the spiritual leader of Community Synagogue in Rye, NY. He is married to Tamara, is the father of Elijah, Shai and Noa. He attended his first MEA workshop in January, 2023 and is currently finding ways to bring those teachings to the Jewish community. 

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