"Truths our Fathers Told Us" Thursdays: Wisdom, Behavior, and Gravitas

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In our calendrical march toward Shavuot, each week we are reading a successive chapter of Pirkei Avot, a small tractate in the Mishna containing rabbinic epigrams about life and piety. This is our third week, and so we are in the third chapter.

In the third chapter, we find three statements attributed to Chanina ben Dosa. I think you will agree that their wisdom is worth remembering and applying in our own contexts.  The quotations are verses 11, 12, and 13 of the third chapter of Pirkei Avot. We will deal with each in turn.

Chanina ben Dosa was a first century sage  who left behind no halachot, rulings on how one should live, and about whom little is known except that his piety was legendary, as was God’s responsiveness to his prayers. We should all have such a reputation. In verse 11 of Pirkei Avot chapter three we read this:

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said: He in whom the fear of sin takes precedence of wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but he in whom wisdom takes precedence of his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure.

This is talking about walking in the fear of God—being afraid of what sin might do to us and to our relationship with Him. A person who walks in the fear of God will retain his wisdom, his perspective on holy things. But a person who fails to walk, that is, live in the fear of God will become foolish in his thinking as well.

In verse 12, we read:

He used to say: He whose works exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but he whose wisdom exceeds his works, his wisdom will not endure.

What does this passage teach us?  Something similar to what Yeshua said in John 13:17:  “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” There are plenty of people who know a lot in many fields, and many people who know a lot of Bible and theology, etc. But the weight of our lives is not determined by how much we know but rather by how we live. Chanina is trying to dissuade people from self-deceit, confusing how much they know with how they will be evaluated by God. God evaluates us by our actions, not by the sophistication of our ideas. The word that comes to mind is “gravitas,” meaning “substance” or “weightiness.” Chanina is reminding us that the truly weighty person, the commendable person, the substantial person, is one whose deeds outweigh his knowledge. Therefore, an unlettered person who lives a godly life is weightier in the eyes of God that someone with three PhD’s whose life is a study in self-aggrandizement.

Finally, Chanina speaks of the continuity between how people assess us and how God views us.

He used to say: He who in whom fellow people find no delight, in him the G-d finds no pleasure.

Society has a way of marking phonies, shysters, con men, opportunists, show-offs and such people. They may be very impressed with themselves, and may fool lots of people. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, and sooner or later, society gets such people’s number. And so it is with God: God is not fooled. He sees what we are really like, and  of what we are really made.  We should live up to what was said of Yeshua when he was a young lad: “And Yeshua increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” Indeed there IS a continuity between how society assesses us and how God does.

Do you join me in assessing Chanina ben Dosa to be a wise man?

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