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Truths from Tradition

“A joyful heart makes for good health; despondency dries up the bones”

By Rabbi Richard F. Address

One of the least examined books of the Bible is the Book of Proverbs. I decided to look at this book for a mini class I am teaching this month in suburban Philadelphia.

Proverbs is part of a small collection of books referred to as “Wisdom literature.” The book offers observations on life, not from a lofty stance, but rather from the point of view of most of us who have to get through the day making a series of choices for our families and ourselves. Often, wisdom (chochmah in Hebrew) is personified and speaks as a wise sage. There are collections of maxims on a variety of topics. Some deal with issues related to health and healing and provide us with some very sound and common sense advice. In fact, the book really contains a lot of just plain old common sense advice.

For example: A joyful heart makes for good health; despondency dries up the bones (17:22). We all have heard the adage that attitude is everything. Well, here it is from a text about 3,000 years old! Indeed, study after study in our times has concluded that how you choose to respond to the challenges of life really does impact how you live your life and how your health reacts. In other words, Proverbs suggests that seeing that glass as half full actually has health benefits and makes life better. This is echoed a chapter later, where the book says: A man’s spirit can sustain him through illness; but low spirits—who can bear them? (18:14).

Here is another example of the common sense contained in the book. Many of us, as we grew up, heard from our elders advice on when it is appropriate to speak and how to speak. Likewise, we echoed these sentiments as we ourselves parented our children. The reality that words have power and sometimes it is better to stay silent is a reality that we all can identify with. So, it is no wonder that Proverbs says: Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweet to the palate and a cure for the body (16:24).

Jewish tradition teaches that words, when wrongly used, can have the power to kill. The concept of lashon ha’ rah (evil speech or gossip) is a very strong part of our teachings. Indeed, it is included in the interpretation of the commandment against murder, as commentators knew that words, spoken in anger or with malice, can have the impact of “killing” another person. What we say can and does make a difference, so Proverbs reminds us that A healing tongue is a tree of life, but a devious one makes for a broken spirit (15:4).

Much of the text contains advice in the form of a parent talking to a child. It is often cast in the language of Wisdom speaking to the author and symbolizes a host of things (e.g., parent to child, God to humanity). However, if you examine many of the proverbs, you will probably smile and think and remember when you may have said something quite similar to your own children as they grew up, or to grandchildren now.

In the beginning of the book are several texts that remind the reader to listen to the instructions of parents, simply because they are your parents! In other words, life experience, honor, and respect count for a lot. In the end, that honor and respect is linked to long life and a peaceful soul. As the text says in one cogent verse from chapter three: My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your mind retain my commandments; for they will bestow upon you length of days, years of life and well being (3:1-3).

Take a look at this most interesting book. I think you will find some very meaningful insights.


Watch that Spinning Dreidel

What’s the message of this twirling top?

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

As many in the Jewish community know, mid-December brings us again to the festival known as Hannukah.

The myths and legends about this festival are many, and the sociological challenges presented to our community to NOT turn it into a sort of over-the-top commercial extravaganza are also the stuff of sermons. But that is not the purpose of this little reflection. I leave that to my colleagues at the thousands of Hannukah services that will take place on Friday night, December 11, when the first candle is lit.

Part of the tradition of the festival is the dreidel game, in which a small top, engraved with Hebrew letters that stand for types of wagers, is spun. Round and round it spins while children giggle with gleeful anticipation to see if they can win a piece of Hannukah gelt (little pieces of chocolate candy). It is fun to watch and even to play. However, as I began to think about the festival, for some reason, I went back to the image of the spinning dreidel and the concept of the randomness of life. We spin the dreidel and do not know upon which letter it will land. For a second or four or more, we wait in anticipation to see what the future holds. I think the symbolism is quite profound. Many of us are at a stage of life when the challenges are growing clearer. Dealing with financial issues, caring for our children (and often our aging parents), facing our own mortality, and coping with the random acts of life (i.e., the cards we are dealt) become more filled with consequences. And it is how we choose to deal with this randomness that so often determines the type of person we become.

I think this concept of greater consequence plays on us in many ways. Often, the challenges presented by life’s randomness cause us to stop short of fulfilling our own dreams—not out of fear, but out of real responsibilities. We may want to retire or change life direction, but the demands of our parents or children or grandchildren may cause us to further delay our dreams out of a real sense of responsibility. Many of the people we know are “on hold” because of the impact of the economy. I know many who have delayed pursuing their dreams because the markets of the past two or three years have eroded their ability to spin their symbolic dreidel for themselves.

Yet, others are confronted with life’s randomness and remain frozen. They want to (and can) make a move, dare to dream, live their “bliss,” but something in them stops that leap. Is it fear, or messages from their childhood? Who can know? The choices we do make are still influenced in a large way by the genetic codes that rush through each of us, as well as those numerous messages that were imprinted on our psyches as we grew up. How many of us are spending a lot of money in therapists’ offices to try to reprogram those tapes?

The message, then, of this spinning toy? Perhaps it is in the need to see strength in our own souls and selves to deal with whatever life hands us. Perhaps it is the reality that the choices we make in light of the randomness of life can be supported and enhanced by caring and loving friends, family, and community. In this coming month, many of us will celebrate great religious festivals that have at their foundation a belief in the power of the self supported by faith. So, in the spirit of Hannukah, a festival that speaks to the ideals of faith and equality, my hope for everyone is that whatever life hands us, we will have the faith in ourselves to choose life, growth, and love.