Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary, new from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, he discusses what we can learn from Proverbs.
The Rabbis taught that most of the Israelites did not leave Egypt during the Exodus. Indeed, for some—perhaps most—people, the familiar state of “slavery” is much more comfortable than unknown “freedom.” Today, our world changes faster than ever before in human history. There is a lot of fear of change, fear of loss. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. As spiritual seekers, we have unique opportunities each day to continue to reflect on the ancient wisdom of our tradition and how it can be made relevant to our moment.
Spirituality is not simply “fun” or “meaningful.” There is far too much at stake. If we do not elevate our spiritual consciousness, we will destroy ourselves. More than a political revolution, we need a global spiritual awakening to the oneness and the interconnectedness of all life! How will we get there? What intellectual and spiritual resources will help us all move forward? Which of those resources will be brand-new and which ones will be ancient?
The Book of Proverbs—a book of ancient wisdom—is one of the most profound works found within the Hebrew Bible, but one that is not often explored in a truly spiritual, accessible, and relevant way. The language of the book is often vague, and its words and lessons are often open-ended and shrouded with literary ambiguity, qualities that make it hard to digest for the contemporary reader. Still, the wisdom that is contained within the Book of Proverbs is timeless, and readers have much to gain by learning from its ancient precepts.
Those of us who live in a world of paradox might find the Book of Proverbs—known as Sefer Mishlei in Hebrew—to seem a bit binary and simplistic. However, the book pushes us to remember that actually much of life is quite binary! We are confronted with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. The challenge is to see which moments require us to view situations with nuance and embrace paradox—and which moments require our fervent and robust moral and spiritual action. In the latter moments, we should not try to find intellectual excuses, but rather respond with clarity and courage. In the Book of Proverbs, we find the productive and the lazy, the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust—and we know where we want to find ourselves on that map!
The Book of Proverbs is the second book of K’tuvim (“Writings,” the third section of the Hebrew Bible) and consists of only thirty-one chapters. As part of the biblical “wisdom literature,” the book discusses moral values and proper conduct. The collection is divided according to its different authors.1 In fact, one might divide the book into seven different books merged into one, similar to a contemporary anthology consisting of seven chapters written by different authors. Other books in the Hebrew Bible of the same wisdom literature genre include Ecclesiastes and Job.2
Due to the lack of references to the Divine, the content of the Book of Proverbs is accessible to a broad readership, believers and nonbelievers alike. Proverbs is not a typical biblical book. God is mentioned here and there, but the content of the book is mostly focused on human learnings and wisdom. As one might say today, the book is “spiritual but not religious.” It appears to have been written not for an intellectual elite interested in theology, but as a moral guide for all people. It is not an exclusively “Jewish” book, but speaks to universal concerns. It does not address the needs, interests, and challenges of a specific community, but rather seeks to provide guidance for an individual—any individual.
Learn more and order the book at proverbs.ccarpress.org. A free study guide by CCAR Press Rabbinic Intern Ada Luisa Sinacore is available.
1. “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1–9); “The proverbs of Solomon” (Proverbs 10:1–22:16); “The words of the sages” (Proverbs 22:17–24:22); “These also are by the sages” (Proverbs 24:23–34); “These too are proverbs of Solomon, which the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied” (Proverbs 25–29); “The words of Agur” (Proverbs 30); “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother admonished him” (Proverbs 31). It is important to note, however, that it is possible to view these other authors as nicknames for Solomon.
2. Two other books are generally included in the genre of the wisdom literature that were excluded from the Tanach but included in the Apocrypha: Wisdom of Solomon and Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Ecclesiasticus).
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a global activist and the author of twenty-two books on Jewish spirituality, social justice, and ethics. His many works include the CCAR Press titles Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (2018) and The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (2020).