Judaism - Torah

Heart Wisdom in Uncertainty

One of my absolute favourite Jewish teachings is the question asked by our rabbis: “Who is wise? Eizehu Hacham?”

In a world of isolated thinking and wanting to listen only to people just like us, I find their ancient answer to be a much needed modern tonic: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone. Halomed Mikol Adam.” 

But for the past few weeks, to be honest, this teaching hasn’t been serving me well.

I’m overwhelmed.

Too much news.

Too many press conferences.

Too many predictions.

Too many people giving me new reasons to worry.

It feels like the idea of learning from everyone is a recipe for a perfect storm of anxiety and uncertainty.

And that’s the heart of it, isn’t it? Everything seems so uncertain right now.

So it’s natural for us to want to try and absorb as much as we can, as we try to get some sense of stability and certainty.

We watch, we read, we click, we watch some more, we reach for more and more and more, grasping for anything to hold on to. Anything to help us feel like we know what’s going on; what to do. What is “wise.”

But I think, perhaps, this is not the route to wisdom we need right now.

Maybe what we need is the kind of wisdom described in the Torah this week.

Our ancestors, the Israelites, are in the midst of their precarious journey through the midbar – the wilderness – itself a place of uncertainty, where the path ahead was not always clear.

Lots of reasons to be anxious in the wilderness.

But it’s there, out in the wild, that they will build God’s home.

It is there – in a place of seeming scarcity and insecurity – that they construct a reassuring place of holiness.

“Let all among you who are wise of heart,” the Torah says, “come and make the mishkan,” – come and make the tabernacle.

The mishkan – a symbol of God’s dwelling on earth. The place where we can feel the shechinah – the indwelling, nurturing, motherly presence of God.

How does the Torah tell us such a place of reassurance is built?

Chochmat Lev, the Torah teaches – wisdom of the heart – is the key ingredient.

What is this heart-wisdom?

It is the talent within each of us that is offered up without reservation or hesitation.

It is that unique set of abilities that each of us brings to life.

It is the way we understand our moral obligations to one another as emanating from the depths of our souls. (See Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3 54:1)

It is that distinctive way that each of us looks at the world through our own eyes, and emotes from the very depths of our own heart – a perspective that belongs just to each one of us, and to nobody else.

Without these singular talents, perspectives, and gifts of the heart… the mishkan couldn’t have been built.

And what’s fascinating is how the Torah describes these offerings. Not only as “gifts” or “talents” or “skills.”

No, it describes these crucial offerings as “wisdom.” Wisdom of the heart.

Wisdom isn’t only what we seek to acquire from others,

It’s what we bring and give of ourselves.

And here’s the thing that we need to hold onto today: all of this heart-wisdom – this chochmat lev – it wasn’t needed just for an ancient architectural project.

It actually has the power to sustain the world.

A particularly beautiful midrash (see: Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 3 and Tanchuma Pekudei 2:3teaches that God also used chochmah in the creation of the world. It wasn’t that God just “decided” to create the world, and then “click” it happened. Our rabbis creatively imagine that God went through a process of reflection, meditation, and self-assessment… as if God said to Godself: “what do I need to do to create the world? What do I need to draw upon?”

The answer: chochmah. Wisdom.

So the building of the mishkan with wisdom is akin to the creation of the world itself. They’re made from the same “stuff.”

There is some creativity in the building of the mishkan with chochmat lev that is the same as that of the creation of the world! It’s not just something God can do. We can do it, as well.

The implication here is amazing: When we bring our chochmat lev, our heart wisdom, to the world today, we continue to complete God’s creation. We continue to perfect the world. We continue to build spaces for holiness.

And that much needed wisdom emerges from deep within each of us.

Chochmah for us in these uncertain days doesn’t have to only be the answer to our existential woes.

Chochmah doesn’t have to be listening to everyone all the time, and overloading your senses.

Chochmah can be – must also be – listening to ourselves.

It’s paying attention to what we have to offer others that nobody else can, especially in a moment like this.

It’s plumbing the depths of our hearts and souls to truly understand what are our obligations to each other.

The Tanya – a classic Chassidic work – describes chochmah as being made up of two Hebrew words: koach + mah, meaning “potential.” Chochmah is pure potential. Wisdom is that which is within us, waiting to come out.

I feel like this is where we’re at right now – waiting in a moment of potential, to see what will happen.

God willing, what will happen will be for the goodness of us all.

But it will demand our heart-wisdom.

“If we lack wisdom, then no other request really matters,”teaches Erica Brown.

We don’t always know what lies ahead. Even though we desperately want to.

We don’t always know to whom we should listen.

We don’t always… know.

Uncertainty is painfully challenging.

The great Chassid, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, taught: The point is not to rid oneself of struggle, but to accept it as a condition of being human.”  So we gain wisdom not in grasping for the answer, but in listening to ourselves. That’s chochmat lev. It’s that “exquisite and often contradictory balance of curiosity, instinct, patience, caution and risk.” (Erica Brown)

That’s how the mishkan was built.

That’s how the world was created.

It’s what we need right now.

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