Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
PROVERBS CHAPTER 4
As mentioned in the commentary on Proverbs ch 1, the first nine chapters of the book are a kind of extended prologue consisting of a series of discourses that set forth the wise path in life and exhort us to follow it. Then from chapter 10 onwards, most of the rest of the book is a weave of "proverbs" in the usual English sense of the word - one-sentence sayings of wisdom each of which is a perfectly chiseled epigram. These proverbs are collected one after the other in verse after verse, chapter after chapter, with in many cases no discernible thematic relationship between them.
However, in these early chapters of the book, each discourse is a continuous whole in the sense that one verse leads into the next developing the overall theme of the discourse, while a logical thread can be discerned in the sequence of the discourses. These vary in length from a few verses to a whole chapter. They return again and again to the same underlying themes, exploring them in different ways and with different images. This is characteristic of MUSSAR, moralistic teaching, since its purpose is to drum home the message and to reinforce it with constantly renewed encouragement and exhortation.
The worldview and spiritual psychology of Proverbs are elaborated and explained at length in Kabbalistic literature as well as in the literature of Rabbinic MUSSAR and HASHKAFAH ("outlook", "worldview"). Proverbs has a unique style of its own, with a distinctive vocabulary and a system of cantillation (trope) that is different from all of the other books of the Bible except Psalms and Job. Even so, the fundamental structure of each verse is the same as it is throughout the Bible. Every verse divides into two parts, with a rest or pause in the middle (ETHNAHTAH). The second part of the verse is normally an expansion or elaboration of the first, or sometimes its antithesis. This fundamental verse structure is an expression of the underlying thought pattern of the Torah, which proceeds from Chochmah (the start, initial statement or "thesis") to Binah (the explanation and elaboration, or sometimes the "antithesis"). Not only does every phrase and verse have its simple meaning, which Biblical translations strive to render; the Hebrew letters and words also carry multiple levels of overtones and allusions as well as mathematical equations and divine names and attributes that no translation can convey.
Chapter 4 vv 1-19 are a discourse on the theme of giving honor and devotion to the pursuit of Torah wisdom and keeping away from the path of the wicked which is its negation. This discourse is the third and last in the series that began in the previous chapter devoted to the overall theme of practical service of God, starting with faith and trust (Proverbs 3:1-20) and going on to practical fulfillment of the commandments of the Torah (3:21-35). These three discourses on the service of God came after earlier discourses explaining the four prerequisites for serving God: choosing good teachers (1:8-9), avoiding evil influences (1:10-18), being aware of the reward for righteousness and the punishment for evil (1:20-33) and pursuing wisdom (2:1-22). There the pursuit of wisdom was presented as the prerequisite for serving God, while in the discourse in our present text it is itself an act of service.
Ch 4 v 1: "Hear, you children, the instruction of a father." The Torah commands each father to teach the Torah diligently to his children (Deut. 5:7) because the entire transmission of the Torah from generation to generation depends on this. Here, we are all the children, while King Solomon acts as the mouthpiece for the loving Father of all of us -- the Holy One, blessed be He (Rashi on Proverbs 4:1). "The prophet prophesies and speaks as the emissary of the Holy One blessed be He, and he acts as His mouth" (Rashi on v 2).
V 3: "For I was my father's son, tender and the only one in the sight of my mother." - "If you say that Solomon hated people because he warns against robbery and sexual immorality, things which people crave, he therefore says, 'I was my father's son, tender and the only one.' to show that his father loved him greatly yet still gave him this reproof, emphasizing that he is warning all of us only out of love" (Rashi on vv 3-4).
V 5-7: This loving father now urges us to acquire wisdom and understanding, which are the only truly enduring acquisitions we can gain from this world. Rashi (on v 7) explains that the acquisition of CHOCHMAH-wisdom is the first stage: one must acquire, accept and internalize information from one's teacher. The next stage is then to apply one's own intelligence, BINAH-understanding, in considering and analyzing this information in order to "understand one thing from another".
Vv 10ff encourage us to be mindful of the great benefits that accrue from gaining wisdom, including length of days. Wisdom is not a one-time acquisition: gaining wisdom is a pathway (vv 11-12). First and foremost it requires persistence and constant application (v 13). One must therefore be constantly on guard against getting sidetracked onto the pathway of the wicked, which is antithetical to that of wisdom (vv 14-19).
Verses 20-27 make up a new section on the theme of ZEHIRUS, "caution". In the words of Rabbenu Yonah: "Our sages said that study brings a person to practice (Kiddushin 40b) and practice brings one to caution. Therefore Solomon started with a section speaking about the pursuit of wisdom, study (2:1-22) and afterwards arranged three sections dealing with practice: (1) faith and trust in God in all areas of life, Proverbs 3:1-20; (2) keeping the commandments of the Torah, 3:21-35; (3) honoring the Torah and those who teach it while distancing oneself from evil companions, 4:1-19. Now he turns to the subject of caution, arranging it in four sections. (1) Caution in keeping the commandments of the Torah, Proverbs 4:20-27; (2) Caution in preserving one's fear of heaven intact, 5:1-23; (3) Caution in avoiding monetary loss, 6:1-4; (4) avoiding the opposite of caution, which is laziness and lethargy, 6:5-11. His way in this book is to first teach about every desirable trait and every pathway to reverence, and then afterwards to speak disparagingly about the opposite of the trait in question in order to keep you well away from it."
The present section (4:20-27) exhorts us to caution in keeping the positive commandments of the Torah and avoiding infringement of its prohibitions. We are urged to devote all of our faculties to this mission: these verses mention the ears, the eyes, the heart, the mouth, the lips and the legs. Each limb of the body must be directed to the pursuit of the commandments.
This chapter is a discourse in two parts (vv 1-6 & 7-23) on avoiding the "strange woman", who symbolizes the evil inclination in all aspects and in particular heretical beliefs, which provide a rationalization for everything that is contrary to the Torah. This "strange woman" is the very opposite of the archetypal God-fearing "Woman of Valor" whose traits are delineated in the closing chapter of Proverbs (ch 31).
The "strange woman" is seductive and alluring, holding out the promise of every kind of pleasure and satisfaction through the use of slick, tempting language. "But her end is bitter as wormwood." (v 4). "Her feet go down to death." (v 5). This verse teaches that those who fall victim to her seductions will loose the life of this world and the next. The verse is also adduced in the kabbalistic writings as alluding to the way in which lower levels ("feet") of the aspect of the attribute of MALCHUS are clothed in and sustain the realm of evil (SITRA ACHRA=death).
Vv 7ff explain the terrible consequences of falling prey to the allure of the "strange woman". Those who do so give all their strength to "others" (v 9) - these are the false gods to whom people devote their lives, while the "cruel one" to whom they give over their precious years is the angel appointed over hell, who punishes them for ever after for having spent their time in vain. All their energy is sapped by strangers and aliens, and all they are left with in the end is the terrible pain of regret and contrition (v 11), asking why they did not listen to their true guides and teachers (vv 12-14).
V 15: "Drink waters out of your own cistern." Rather than turning aside to the "strange woman", one must remain faithful to the source of life that God has given as one's share - the Torah, which is "the wife of your youth" (v 18 see Rashi). This is the true antidote to the seductive heresies and temptations that surround us. The Torah is "a loving hind and a pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy you at all times and be ravished always with her love" (v 19).
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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