The Wisest One of All – by Yoel Broderick
The war between the Greeks and the Jews was the battle between the forces of good and evil, the powers of light vs. darkness, and the triumph of the pure over the impure. Yet it was also the battle of the wits. Read on to see how the Sages already saw their innermost drives upon their first encounter with the Greek nation…
The Gemara (Tamid 31b) records the dialogue between Alexander the Great and the Jewish Sages of the Negev. One question he put to them is Eizehu chacham – Who is wise?
In his heart, Alexander knows only one answer. We, the Greeks, are the wisest of them all. We have the greatest philosophers of the world, whose realm of knowledge encompasses all of the branches of science. We have the might, power and brains of Earth. We are vastly superior and utterly supreme!
The Jews answered, Haroeh es hanold – One who considers the outcome. A strange answer. The outcome of what? What happens if you mix sodium bicarbonate and citric acid? What is so smart about seeing the nolad – the outcome? Can’t everyone see it? Apparently not.
What was the real dialogue between Alexander and the Sages?
Let’s begin with some forensic analysis.
The Sages were not referring to foreseeing the future. That’s the realm of the prophet, not the chacham. It’s something that mere mortal man – bound by time and space and limited in his four dimensional world view – just can’t do.
The Sages also skipped the obvious answer. Literally, the word chacham means one who has knowledge and acumen, implying that the one with the most knowledge or greatest IQ is superior. Obviously, their answer went deeper than that. It would seem that the Sages were referring to something beyond tomes of scientific knowledge or agile philosophical debate.
The Mishnah in Avos (at the beginning of the fourth chapter) gives a different answer. Who is wise? One who learns from every person. The talmid chacham – the perpetual student of wisdom – is the truly wise, for he loves wisdom. He loves it more than he loves himself. He will put aside pride, personal honor and his innermost feelings in its pursuit.
Why, then, did the Sages respond with “considering the outcome”? In light of “learning from others,” shouldn’t they have pointed to Alexander’s arrogance or glory-seeking as impediments to acquiring wisdom?
I think that had the Sages responded with this answer, Alexander would have retorted in feigned sincerity – well, that’s why I am here! As the original philosophers, the Greeks prided themselves on this very trait. The word philosopher actually comes from Greek, and means one who loves wisdom (Tashbatz).
The Sages answered Alexander according to his line of reasoning, while elaborating on his follies. Who is truly wise? One who considers the moral outcome of his actions. The one who looks ahead and acts righteously is the wise one. To be intellectually smart and act pompously, maliciously or promiscuously is meaningless – and stupid. The Sages were quick to point out to Alexander – all of the wisdom of the world comes to naught, unless you let the branch of wisdom that differentiates between good and evil, the primordial knowledge acquired in the Garden of Eden, influence your way of life. That’s called seeing the nolad. Righteousness is “born” out of applying the wisdom of morality to one’s actions.
Let us take this concept further.
The Gemara (Shabbos 31b) writes that reshaim are fully aware they will eventually die. Yet, they have no fear of Divine Judgement, nor do they entertain second thoughts in the face of Divine Retribution. And it’s not like they forget about it either. Like the Psalmist said (Tehillim 49:14), “…folly is theirs, yet their destiny is on their lips…” They constantly make mention of their ultimate demise.
Another Medrash (B. R. 67:8) points out that reshaim are possessed by their hearts, unlike tzaddikim who have their hearts in their possession.
Why doesn’t the fear of death make any impression on the rasha? Being held captive by his own heart – how can we fault the rasha for his evil deeds?
The Chida explains that one who constantly fulfills his desires and follows his evil inclination’s every whim, slowly loses his ability to choose good over evil. His heart eventually becomes numb and defunct. It is the rasha himself who allows the evil inclination to take possession of his heart. From that point on, death holds no threat, and he can no longer adequately consider the outcome of his actions.
Street smart vs life smart
We have all heard of the concept of street smart. The Sages revealed a new branch of wisdom, something missing in the Greek lecture halls and textbooks, called life smart. Considering the outcome of one’s actions brings a new dimension of understanding to life. It is, in fact, the ultimate body of wisdom, exceeding all others in its sublimity.
Awakened by the fragility and mortality of man, and honed by years of contemplating the purpose of life, the “one who considers the outcome” opens his eyes to the underlying rationale of existence. He looks for morals and meaning – and finds G-d. And he is awed by what he sees.
The chacham applies this life-smart wisdom to his actions and chooses to live by its teachings. It slowly softens his heart and makes it receptive to the Divine. All other wisdom pale in comparison, as man discovers G-d. When describing the wisdom of recognizing G-d, Iyov said “Hein – behold, the fear of G-d is wisdom” (Iyov 28:28). The Gemara (Shabbos 31b) explains that the word hein is actually a Greek word, meaning singular and unique. Recognition of G-d (and its awe-inspiring derivative, fear of G-d) is unique in the depth and breadth of its wisdom. The Scriptures specifically pointed this out to the Greeks by using a Greek term.
However, the Greeks saw no G-d. They were blinded by power and desire. Their hearts were hardened from contemplating the effect their actions had on their lives and how their immoral choices were leading them astray. Only someone who can remove the blinders of the evil inclination and place their heart in their own possession can taste that elixir-wisdom of recognizing G-d and seeing the true underlying reality of life.
The Greeks were smart – but not life smart. They claimed superiority and indeed had wisdom, but lacked the foresight and understanding to live accordingly. Their wisdom did not prevent them from acting immorally, becoming ruthless – and ultimately, being destroyed.
They could master every branch of wisdom and write the book on it, but when it came to personal rectification and impinging on their hearts desires, they stopped dead in their tracks. By doing so, they lost the battle of the wits.
Yoel Broderick is a freelance translator and typesetter, and owner of Sefarim In Design – helping authors self-publish by offering a wide range of publishing services. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.