Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 8 December 2018 / 30 Kislev 5779

Parshat Mikeitz - Chanukah

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Discerning and Wise

After Yosef interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, he advises the king to seek a man who is navon v’chamam — discerning and wise — to appoint over Egypt. This discerning and wise viceroy will collect taxes during the years of plenty and stockpile grain to preserve it for the years of famine. As a general rule, chochmah (wisdom) precedes binah (understanding or discernment). But here the order is reversed. (Navon is a conjugate of binah.)

A chacham is one who takes in all that is in front of him. He recognizes things for what they are and for what they should be. Both of these (the nature of things and their intended purpose) are given; man need not create them. The truest chacham is one who learns the nature and the purpose from the One who assigned things this nature and purpose, by the study of Torah.

Binah derives from the word bein, between. It denotes penetrating insight into things, discernment between things. While a mortal cannot penetrate the very essence of things, man can draw logical conclusions and gain further insight. Beyond recognizing things for what they are (chochmah), binah uses the intellectual capacities of comparison, inference and deduction to gain a more profound understanding.

By its nature, binah is a more active art than chochmah. If chochmah requires receptivity and absorption, binah requires independent and creative intellectual thinking. It is striking then, that the function of chochmah is expressed most commonly in the active (kal) form [chacham, a wise man;chachamti, I became wise], whereas the binah is expressed most commonly in the passive form [navon, a discerning man].

Implicit in the grammatical form of these capacities are two important warnings. One may think that acquisition of wisdom requires no effort on the part of the observer. But one who truly wishes to absorb the whole reality of the thing before him must concentrate his mental powers, lest he grasp only the superficial knowledge, or be susceptible to half-truths.

Conversely, the mind’s deductive activity is a unique human pleasure, which summons us to be creative and independent. To guard against rash conclusions, this faculty is expressed mostly in the passive form. In drawing conclusions and making inferences, one should keep in mind the two alternatives, and weigh them extensively until the logical conclusion presents itself automatically. Otherwise, his conclusions may be dazzling, his theories brilliant, but at the same time, often false.

Theoretical knowledge — obtained through binah — always requires a solid foundation of empirical knowledge — obtained through chochmah. This is why, generally, chochmah precedes binah in the text, just as it must in practice.

Here, however, the empirical facts have already been set forth in detailed clarity. Now, binah was needed to develop a plan to cope with the conditions; to establish effective precautionary measures. Once the plan is devised through discernment, wisdom would again been needed to assess the actual conditions in order to implement the plan. Hence, Yosef suggests that Pharaoh seek out a “discerning and wise man,” who turns out to be none other than Yosef himself.

· Sources: Commentary, Bereishet 41:33

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