Torah Sermons: They are Supposed to Unveil God’s Brilliance, not Man’s Ingenuity
It is unfortunate when one delivering a sermon or Dvar Torah implies he will offer insights into the Parsha, but instead, offers his personal views. Maybe his view is valid, but he does the Torah a grave injustice. For his ideas do not represent the verses he quotes, nor is he conveying God’s brilliance as formulated in the Torah’s precise structure. He simply uses the verse as a launch pad for his own thoughts; thoughts that at times the speaker doesn’t even claim are provable, but are merely possible. And that’s contrary to a “Torah verse”, which by definition is true. In this manner, the verse is rendered utilitarian; an associative tool or intro for his own remarks. His ideas do not fit the quoted words, but he presents his thoughts as the sum total of the verse.
I view this as a lost opportunity, where he might have shared God’s great marvels. This is how we can make Torah appealing, when we unveil such amazing design in the verses…such precision and depth impossible for man to write. A simpler lesson as is typical of sermons, merely shows man’s ingenuity. But a Torah sermon is supposed to imbue us with an appreciation for God, not man. A sermon should not evoke a shoulder shrug, but dropped jaws.
I say all this not to disparage anyone, but to increase your expectations of what Torah can offer, and to urge those who teach, to toil, dig deep, and present nothing less than magnificent sermons, for Torah is magnificent.
I wish to share some ideas, which we discovered in our Sunday learning group last week. I feel those who were present found King Solomon’s teachings insightful, and hopefully you will feel the same.
Koheles (Ecclesiastes) 7:5-8
“5. Better is it to listen to the ridicule of a wise man, than to be a man listening to the songs of fools. 6. For as the sound of the thorns [crackling in flames] under the pot, so is the laughter of the fool; this too is futile. 7. For oppression profanes the wise, and destroys the heart given as a gift. 8. Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; better is patience than pride.
As always, we must appreciate that a Torah lesson intends to oppose alternative views and our natural inclinations. For example, as people never worshipped air, the Torah did not isolate such a specific case, although it would be a violation to worship anything but God. But the verses above imply that we must possess the inclination to listen to songs, rather than hearing ridicule. Otherwise we need not be taught this lesson. This is why King Solomon advises us to abandon such a path.
Verse 5. But why do we prefer song? There are a number of reasons. One is that man’s ego naturally prefers to retain a proud self-image. Man will avoid any ridicule to achieve this end. Man also enjoys instant gratification, quickly afforded by music. Notable is that the King says, “than to be a man listening to the songs of fools”. He could have omitted the word “man”, but he didn’t. This indicates that the preference to hear song is tied to the person’s preoccupation with the self. As long as the self – the man – is of primary concern, he will avoid rebuke.
However, this first verse is merely a discussion of man’s actions, and directing us to what is preferable. But without measuring the value of song against wise rebuke, what is wrong with song? The next verse explains, as we witness the King ordering his verses as a progressive lesson.
Verse 6. Thorns, used as fuel to cook one’s pot of food, will make crackling sounds. As these thorns are burnt and destroyed, they crackle. King Solomon equates this crackling to the laughter of fools. Fools destroy themselves as they engage in foolishness and frivolity, which could be valuable time used to engage in study, or perfection. Such loose talk also increases their attraction to speech, which is primarily emotional, not intellectual. So they waste time, and become more emotionally based. This is their destruction, akin to the thorns destroyed in the fire. This verse commences with the word “For”, as it comes to explain verse 5. We now understand why it is better to listen to the ridicule of the wise, for if we prefer song, we engage in destructive behavior. Through another example of crackling thorns, we learn there exists harm in such actions.
Verse 7. This teaches that not only is frivolity destructive, but it also restricts or oppresses us from time spent in wisdom…something given as a gift. So frivolity has two negative aspects: 1) it engenders attachment to emotions over intellect, and 2) it forfeits the time we might have used to gain wisdom.
Verse 8. This is the primary verse in this series. For in this verse, King Solomon lays down a ‘rule’, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning”. If we tell our friend not to eat too much poultry so as to avoid cholesterol, he or she might listen, but might eat steak and cheese instead. If however we warn against animal products, the “rule” offers greater potential good, than does warning against one item. Similarly, King Solomon now sets down a rule: the latter end of a thing is better than its beginning. But in what respect does this rule relate to our verses?
As we said, one reason a person enjoys music over ridicule is that it offers immediate gratification. Many people opt to satisfy an emotion, rather than calculating if it might be better to refrain that emotional satisfaction in deference to a greater good. It is this immediate need for gratification that, in its many forms, harms us. We make knee-jerk decisions that ultimately prove wrong; we quickly assess the value of a home and thereby suffer monetary loss; we may ingest sweets over bitter foods, although the latter is healthier. With this rule, King Solomon enables us to be patient and evaluate all matters slowly, as the latter end will bring us more information, and a better decision. King Solomon wants the best for us, so he does not simply provide a single example about music over ridicule, but he provides a rule with far-reaching applications. The example is given first, so when the rule is stated, we may easily understand its ramification in practice.
This rule is precisely the underlying cause for the man who prefers music to constructive ridicule. He seeks to satisfy an impulse, as opposed to perfecting his soul. But had he evaluated what is preferable, i.e., the latter end, in light of his objective in life, he would have opted to hear the wise person’s remarks.
“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning”
This concept is quite important. When we say something is “better”, we mean that it is truer than an alternative. Thus, “the day of death is better than the day of birth” (ibid 7:1) since man’s value at birth is merely ‘possible’ and not yet real. However, at death, man has performed real actions; the good he has obtained is real. Only now is he a man of value. So his death is better than his birth, as his soul is not ‘potentially’ good, but truly good.
This applies to everything. For only at the end of the life of a man or an object, or at the conclusion of an event, do we have the entire subject matter before our mind’s eye. Only then is an evaluation absolutely true as it assesses the “entire” subject. Thus, when an evaluation is given, it is not assessing ‘part’ of the subject based on its beginning alone, but it takes into consideration its entirety. Only then is the evaluation true, what we call “better”.
When Jacob heard his son Joseph telling his dreams, he rebuked his son in order to mitigate the brothers’ jealousy, but not because he felt Joseph was proven wrong. That very verse also says “And his father guarded the matter”. (Gen. 37:11) Meaning that Jacob did not assess the dreams as negative, simply basing himself on one consideration, that they initially evoked the brothers’ jealousy. Rather, Jacob “guarded the matter” in his heart and waited to see how matters panned out. Perhaps from his own dream of the ladder, Jacob understood his wisest son Joseph might also benefit from prophetic dreams. Jacob’s patience bore out his assumption as true. Joseph did in fact become the leader, as his dreams foretold. The dreams were prophetic.
Similarly, King Solomon ends his work Koheles with these words: “The conclusion of the matter, all having been heard…”. King Solomon only offers an assessment of the best life after “all has been heard”. He adds, “For all matters, God will bring to judgment, on all that is concealed, whether good or bad”. (Koheles 12:13,14) This teaches that God too will assess man, but only after “all” matters are completed. And an example of the Torah’s ridicule for one who is impatient and does not wait to grasp the full picture, we read of Jacob’s rebuke of Reuben for being impetuous. (Gen. 49:4)
Returning to our verses, so vital is patience to accurate decisions, that King Solomon included “patience” in verse 8 as opposed to discussing patience in a new verse. For with this juxtaposition of patience and “the end of a thing” in a single verse, he follows the Mesora (tradition or transmisison) that all ideas in a single verse are intimately related, more so than if found in subsequent verses. And patience by far, is that which enables us to assess the latter end of something. To impress upon us to wait until the end of a matter to judge anything, King Solomon also includes the lesson of patience in this very same verse.
These lessons that are so vital to your appreciation of God’s wisdom. God wrote His Torah and inspired His prophets’ writings in a manner where the Torah’s precise words are the starting and ending points of the lessons. The Rabbis teach “Ain mikra yotzai miday peshuto”, “No verse may be interpreted where the interpretation conflicts with the literal reading”. (Tal. Sabbath 63a) This means that we must strive to focus on the Torah’s wording, for no verse or word is superfluous; every verse contains gems, as does the sequence of verse. But these gems will only be uncovered through patience and deep analysis, where we “let the words speak to us”, as a wise Rabbi taught. The Torah’s words contain the lessons: we need not invent baseless interpretations. Developing a greater sensitivity to the nuances of each verse, we will ensure our understandings of these verses are truer.
Reviewing the King’s words above, not only does he formulate his verses in a progressive manner, with each succeeding verse explaining the cause for the preceding verse, but also he uses the principles of joining a few ideas in a single verse to force us to ask why he has done so. And only when we ask, will we find an answer and appreciate the intent of that verse. But the common approach to simply make “suggestions” and call them “Torah”, numbs the ears of many, and fails to impress everyone with God’s words. One who teaches Torah has an obligation to present Torah as unparalleled in its brilliance. It must engender the sense in every listener that these words must emanate from a Supreme Intellect, from God. To get away with “filling” the sermon’s 5-minute time slot with something half-baked, is a real loss. The speaker is more concerned that he spoke, than he is concerned to present God’s wisdom. It would be more impressive if a speaker would, on one Shabbos, confess that the Torah portion is far above what he can unravel. In this manner he would sustain the correct awe of God’s Torah. But to force some notion into a Torah portion has a lasting affect on others where their taste of Torah is made bitter. They may not wish to attend future lectures. I actually heard someone say this last Shabbos.
In this same vein, some speakers say a certain “Torah” secret is so deep, that “we cannot understand or explain it”. He attempts to wow his audience by implying that he knows the “deep” subject, but his audience is far below his level. Ego: plain and simple ego. To this, I say the speaker is foolish. For he attempts to make his audience accept as real, that which he cannot articulate…an impossibility. For if a person knows an idea, he can articulate it. But if he doesn’t know an idea, or if he desires to spread lies or foolishness that appeal to him and he’s afraid to admit ignorance, he hides behind such claims that they’re “deep” or “mystical”. But the Rabbis already warned not to make the Torah a spade with which to dig or gain honor through. (Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah, 3:10)
Torah education is defined as impressing others with a greater appreciation for God’s wisdom, not when we force an answer, for the sake of an answer. A wise Rabbi said we should offer answers that are “demanded” by the texts. “What we must say”. Let us strive to uncover Torah gems, withholding our tongues if our theories are not demanded by the texts.
“If you seek it out like silver, and chase after it (Torah) like buried treasures, then you will understand the fear of God, and the knowledge of God will you find.” (Proverbs, 2:4)
This teaches that a real striving is required, if one is to obtain the ideas of Torah. It is not a simple procedure. Now let’s apply this verse, to itself!
Why does King Solomon refer to both “silver” and “buried treasures”, and to “fear” and “knowledge” of God? What lesson would be lost had he cited only one in each pair?
I suggest that silver – as opposed to treasures – is a known thing. But a buried treasure – by definition – is beneath the Earth’s surface, is covered, and is unknown. This means that when we study, we encounter two types of searches for truth: 1) we have intuition concerning the answer (silver), or 2) we do not have intuition, but we nonetheless anticipate something great, like a treasure. The King is teaching that only with “anticipation of something great” will we have the drive essential to endure the time essential to arrive at true answers. We also require a sense that the answer is great. This helps us dismiss simplistic explanations, so strive in our studies until we find real wisdom, which must be amazing. So too, one digging for treasure will not stop even when finding a few shiny trinkets, but he digs further until uncovering the treasure chest.
And what will these answers produce, once found? They produce both 1) fear of God, as we are awed by His wisdom, and 2) the knowledge King Solomon cites at the end of the verse. This means we are transformed emotionally (fear) and intellectually (knowledge) – both parts of man are affected by discovering new ideas.