from Proverbs Seven
I remember it feeling like it happened in slow-motion. During school one year, a student received feedback for a speech they had given and during the question and answer session, when the practice was to offer critical remarks in an effort to sharpen ideas and debate, one interlocutor stood up and pronounced, "I just want to say one word: Wow!" And then sat down.
In one fell swoop, a tradition seemed to topple. The ground shifted. For it appeared that ever after, one who stood to actually criticize was publicly perceived as "negative" and part of an "old culture" that was "behind the times" and not "positive and supportive" of people's "personal spiritual growth" in the way it ought to be. Like a cloud passing over head, changing shape and dissipating into the bright blue sky of indifference, my base of assumptions about what school would be all about was gone.
What of "pilpul," that old European Jewish tradition of sharp-edged thinking, employing critical faculties to arrive at a better and better conclusion, not for my sake but the Sake of Heaven? Back on campus, before rabbinical school, I remember walking up to a professor after a particularly brilliant lecture in which I didn't catch all the literary references. In genuine awe and humility, I approached the lectern to seek clarification and elucidation of the specific point. The references were to works outside the "required reading," so I figured the Herr Doktor would gladly give me the thumbnail. "Read the work," he said, smiling. "What are you afraid of?" God, I thought. And you. But I read the work and perhaps ever since understood one's intellectual reading to be a matter of enjoyment but perhaps more important, a matter of work. With an ethic and an obligation to a higher duty other than oneself.
"The fear of the Eternal is the beginning of Wisdom." So saith Proverbs back at the beginning. And I consider that line here in the seventh chapter, as the author lays out an argument against blinding wonder, against the seduction of illusion, against just one word--"Wow."
"I beheld among the thoughtless wonderers, I discerned among the youth, a young man, devoid of understanding, passing through the market, I went by the way to her house." Here the author employs a sharpness--frivolous learning is a prostitute, painted and seductive, a beauty among a bazaar of alluring objects, just one more thing to acquire for the sake of immediate pleasure.
"He goeth after her straight away, like an ox to his slaughterer, or as one in fetters to a fool's correction." The capacity for self-critical thinking here, for the author's ability to transcend his own motivation and lay bare his ego's involvement in, striving for pleasure without substance, is one of the most difficult challenges we face when studying Torah. What does it mean to find the line, to know the line, between the pleasure of learning for oneself and the pleasure of learning for the Sake of Heaven? When there is so much wonder, who is really being served? And til when does one reckon the price of such (perish the thought!) "self-service?"
"Til an arrow strike through his liver, as a bird hastens to his snare and knoweth not it's at the cost of his life."
Long before my father died, he once observed about me, "Son, you're sometimes like a deer caught in the woods--you hear a twig break and your head turns one way; you hear another twig break and your head turns in that direction." There his metaphor came to a halt. As did his instruction. But his point had been made. Though Chesterton observed "the world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder" it's also possible that there can be too much wonder.
"Let not thy heart decline to her ways, go not astray in her paths. For she hath cast down many wounded; yea, a mighty host are all her slain. Her house is the way to the nether-world, going down to the chambers of death."
Stay sharp. Like a surgeon's tools, the mind in service to God can save your life.