Avraham ben Yaakov
PROVERBS CHAPTER 1
V 1: "Proverbs of Solomon son of David king of Israel ." Unlike the prophets of Israel , King Solomon needs no biographical introduction since the outer details of his life and times are described in full in I Kings chs 1-11 and II Chronicles chs 1-9. It is the inner soul and the unfathomable wisdom of Solomon that are revealed in his three works contained in the Kesuvim or holy "writings" - Song of Songs, which he wrote in his youth, Proverbs (MISHLEY), which dates from his maturity, and Koheles (Ecclesiastes), which he composed in his old age. The initial MEM of the opening word of MISHLEY is written large in the Hebrew text to indicate that Solomon fasted 40 days in order to attain Torah wisdom like Moses, who fasted 40 days and nights (Yalkut Shimoni).
The English word "proverb" is an attempt to render the Hebrew word MASHAL. The word "proverb" suggests a succinct, pithy and memorable saying that teaches deep wisdom. Much of MISHLEY is indeed made up of such sayings: Proverbs chs 1-9 are a lengthy prologue to the work, while almost all of the rest of the book from chapter 10 onwards is made up of such "proverbs" in the usual English sense of the word. However the Hebrew word MASHAL does not only have the connotation of a "proverb" in this sense but also means a metaphor, graphic likeness or image that facilitates deeper understanding and insight into the NIMSHAL, some subject or concept that is elucidated through being compared to or represented by the metaphoric image. "All his words are similes and metaphors: for example, he compares the Torah to a good wife while idolatry is compared to a harlot" (Rashi on Proverbs 1:1).
V 2: "To know wisdom (HOCHMAH) and instruction (MUSSAR) and to apprehend words of understanding (BINAH)". The Spanish rabbi and moralist Rabbenu Yonah of Gerondi (d. 1263), author of the moralistic classic Shaarey Teshuvah, "The Gates of Repentance", explains in his commentary on Proverbs that HOCHMAH, "wisdom", is the defining trait of the righteous Tzaddikim who follow the way of truth, and it is this trait that will be explained in this work. MUSSAR, "instruction" or "reproof" (lit. chastisement) comes to castigate the wicked and explain the loss and damage they cause. BINAH, "understanding", comes when one attains an understanding of the ultimate meaning or intention of something that is said and the thought that lies behind it.
V 3: "To RECEIVE the instruction of wisdom." It is not enough to KNOW wisdom. The point is to receive, accept and APPLY the lesson in practice (Rabbenu Yonah). ".justice (TZEDEK) and judgment (MISHPAT) and equity (MEISHARIM)" - "TZEDEK means going beyond the letter of the law; MISHPAT means judging truthfully following the line of justice; MEISHARIM means knowing how to act rightly and intelligently in those areas where there is no clear legal decision or obligation" (Rabbenu Yonah).
Vv 4-5: Application to the pursuit of wisdom will benefit even the simple and foolish, while the wise will gain ever greater wisdom.
V 6: "To understand MASHAL and MELITZAH." - "When studying each verse, one must pay attention to understanding the two pathways of the MASHAL (here this means the object being elucidated through the metaphor), and the MELITZAH (=the rhetorical phraseology or stylistic device through which it is expressed). It is necessary to understand what it is that is being compared to the metaphorical image used, but one must also not disregard the stylistic device or metaphor itself - this too must be understood. Thus when it says, 'to save you from the strange and alien woman' (Prov. 2:16) this is a metaphor for the idolatrous vanities of Egypt . One must also understand why he used the metaphor of a harlot." (Rashi).
V 7: "The fear of HaShem is the beginning of knowledge." - "Until this point, Solomon explained his purpose in writing this work. Now the book proper begins" (Rashi). The very foundation of all wisdom and knowledge is to teach oneself to fear God.
V 8: "Hear, my son, the instruction of your father." Rabbenu Yonah explains that success in the service of God is founded on four prerequisites, which are explained one by one in the coming passages. (1) One must chose good guides and teachers and be willing to listen to their reproof (vv 8-9). (2) One must avoid all fellowship with evil people (vv 10-19). (3) One must understand that God requites evil and rewards righteousness and set oneself to fear God (vv 20-33). (4) One must toil and struggle to attain wisdom and avoid all extraneous, empty, alien "wisdom" (Prov. 2:1-22).
Vv 10-19 warn against joining those who seek to make great gains at others' expense because they do not understand that they are walking straight into a trap that will destroy them.
V 20: "Wisdom cries outside, she utters her voice in the streets." Wisdom calls to us from everywhere, seeking to draw us near. We must understand that it would be a fatal error to reject the call of wisdom, for those who do "will eat the fruits of their way and be filled with their own devices" (v 31). This is the sage's answer to the very same doubts that the prophet Malachi (ch 3) addressed when he said that although God is long-suffering, He will eventually exact retribution from the wicked, showing that He is the God of true Justice.
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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