Proverbs: The Right Path in Life
Human beings naturally relate to tangible reality. It’s very difficult for us to think abstractly. Parables take physical events and relate them to what’s happening beyond this world.
Proverbs begins with an introductory verse adjuring us to learn wisdom. If you go through life without it, without a voice from outside and above you, without the flow of Hashem entering you, you’re walking through life like a blind man. The instruction before the first parable is, “Shema beni mussar avicha…” See yourself as the child you once were. A child listens to mussar. Mussar means that which is painful and difficult. It comes from the same root as yissurim, (hardships).
In Proverbs, King Solomon tells us, listen to the mussar of your father. It’s your GPS which will tell you to turn right. Turning left and being shady may be easier. It’s painful to turn right, but that is what you must do. Hashem knows all the directions you could take. He gave us the Written and Oral Torah to keep us on the straight path. They are both called mussar.
The Written Torah tells us the principles such as, “Don’t murder…” The Oral Torah tell us how to apply it. The voice of the Written Torah is Hashem’s voice telling us where to head. The voice of the Oral Torah is human response. Treading the straight path means hearing the voice of Hashem as he put it straight in the Torah and His voice as it came through our sages and tradition. We’re also told to listen to the Torah of your mother. Rashi says mother refers to Knesses Yisrael, the community of Israel, which gave birth to our identity.
The first parable in Proverbs speaks about adornment. “For there is a garland around your head and beads around your neck.” What makes a garland beautiful is the way the flowers are attached one to the other. They are not separate, each is part of a whole. The idea is that Torah and mussar should be unified. The path you’re going on and the way you get there should be one. There are people who are so absorbed in how to get there that they forget the path and visa versa. There are people who worship the letter of the law and forget about Hashem. Halacha requires a person to avoid interrupting in the middle of bentching (saying the Grace After Meals), but if someone is drowning, you jump in and save him.
The Torah is one entity just as the human body is one unit with unique aspects that meld together to serve one purpose. If you attempt to isolate specific mitzvot which you decide are worth keeping and forget about the rest, you’ll end up without a Torah. You have to know the direction Torah takes you. Know what is primary and secondary, what is a mitzva from the Torah (d’orayta) and what was established by the Rabbis (d’rabanun), what is a minhag (custom) and what is a chumra (stringency).
Know mussar, know the things that affect your middot, that make it difficult to change, and live a unified life. Rav Moshe Feinstein was once traveling somewhere and a student was driving him. The student mistakenly closed the door on Rav Moshe’s finger. He didn’t utter a sound. The student only saw it when he opened the door. Rav Moshe didn’t want to embarrass him. Humiliating another person is an issur d’orayata, prohibited by the Torah. Rav Moshe was able to exhibit such extraordinary self- control because he mirrored a unified Torah life.