25 April 2010

Omer 26: Wisdom

Omer Day Twenty-Six

All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given; and the world is judged by grace, yet all is according to the amount of one's work. --Rabbi Akiva, Pirke Avot 3.19

We wear watches, check our handhelds. We go to bed at a certain time, rise when the alarm goes off. We live, eat and work according to a schedule. We even time our exercise and relaxation. This gives us all the illusion that we can control time.

When Rabbi Akiva teaches that "all is foreseen" he is staking a claim to the idea that we actually live in Eternal time--with no beginning and no end. An endless ocean of time. Placing ourselves, our lives, our actions into this context allows one to see that all is indeed foreseen: it can't help but be so. Over this reality we have no control, each of us is too small to effect change on the scale of Eternity.

However, freedom of choice is given. In the moment to moment, the day to day, the strength and potential impact of our actions are immeasurable. We lack the strength to "hasten the end" and so plow ourselves into the work. A humbling, cumulative exercise in choosing, earning grace, and being judged accordingly.

That Akiva didn't begin his learning until he turned 40; that he tilled the soil in his first career; each of these facts of his life seem to inform his faithful outlook. During the slow counting of the Omer, we have an opportunity to consider Akiva's sense of perspective.

In our age of information there is so much we think we "know." How paradoxical that in fact we spend 49 days between Passover and Shavuot "not knowing," until we arrive at Sinai and ready ourselves to receive the Manual of Knowing. Perhaps this explains why the Community of the Children of Israel exclaim to God, "We will do and we will listen." In the journey from Egypt to Sinai, they have learned a crucial lesson we are often too quick to forget--that our actions really ought to outweigh our wisdom--and that this itself is a great expression of wisdom.

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, in Pirke Avot 3.12, thought so: "He whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but he whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom does not endure."

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