Religious Life

Who is the Fool? – Rosh Hashanah 5779 – Rabbi Avi Olitzky

Who is the Fool?
Rosh Hashanah 5779
Rabbi Avi Olitzky

When we chat with someone, especially when we disagree, we immediately judge them. We think that they’re wrong, they’re biased, they’re stupid. It begs the question: how do we talk to someone (or even with someone) when we think s/he is a fool? Do we ignore them? Do we, or should we, engage them at all?

The answer may reside in Judaism’s wisdom literature. Proverbs 26:4-5 oddly pairs two verses that are seemingly contradictory. The first: “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly, else you will become like him” – and immediately after: “Answer a fool in accord with his folly, else he will think himself wise.” One verse suggests “don’t answer” and the other suggests “answer” – one pasuk right after the other pasuk.

Recognizing that we have these competing charges, it begs yet another question: how do we resolve this presumed contradiction? Such contradiction did not sit well with the rabbis. In fact, as a result of such presumed contradictions, the rabbis debated whether or not we should include the Book of Proverbs in our biblical canon (e.g., v’af sefer mishlei bakshu lignoz). However, in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 30b, the Rabbis happily suggest lo kashya: there’s no contradiction between the first verse, “Don’t answer,” and the second verse, “Answer.” The Gemara says ha b’divrei torah and ha b’milei d’alma. The first verse, when one should answer a fool, is referring to a case when the fool is making a claim about Torah matters. When one should not answer is referring to a case when the fool is making claims about mundane matters.

Why is there a difference between Torah and mundane? Perhaps it’s because (simply put) the Torah is holy. It has deeper and consequential meaning. Or better, Torah is elevated in holiness, whereas the mundane are the earthly matters—the stuff that we’re not explicitly thinking about with spiritual or religious consequence. It’s the pocketbook, it’s business dealings, all these different types of things.

Perhaps this also has to do with kavod (respect or honor for Torah) and disregard for the mundane, not wasting our time.

Beginning with the mundane: about 500 years ago the Orchot Tzadikim proffered, “When a fool takes issue with a wise person, and the wise person remains silent, this in itself is a great answer to the fool, because the fool is troubled more by the silence than by the answer.” When you’re engaging with a foolish person, according to Orchot Tzadikim, and the Torah says, “It’s mundane matters, don’t respond,” if you just sit there quietly, it’s a better attack—it’s a better response. This is akin to when your parents told you as a child, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Nevertheless, Proverbs teaches us to respond with regard to Torah matters. We’re not supposed to remain silent, and I would initially propose, this is for three reasons.

One, so as to educate the fool. Two, so as not to lead others astray—that is, if you think that this person is a fool, and s/he is “talking Torah,” and you do not challenge, then other people are going to learn Torah from the fool. And three, to set the record straight for the Universe regarding Torah.

The Torah is so elevated, on such a different spiritual plane, that we must correct it. And that would mean that correcting the mundane doesn’t do anything but address the mundane. But correcting Torah matters, in a spiritual and practical sense, one would hope, changes the world.

This leads us to the hidden novelty of this concept: the world is not divided into the sacred and the profane. Or the Torah and the mundane. The world is not black and white in that way. BUT: the world is divided – or at least we divide the world – into what we as individuals see as Torah and what we as individuals see as not Torah, or better, as the mundane.

This begs yet another question: how can we be more attuned to the Torah in the world around us? Some see Torah in sports or in business. They see Torah in politics. They see Torah in health. They see Torah in law. They see Torah in education. They see Torah regularly in the world around us.

Others see each, if not all of these topics, simply as mundane. In fact, some of our peers see these areas as the absence of Torah altogether:

“We can’t address this topic because it doesn’t have to do with Torah.”

“We shouldn’t worry about this matter because it’s not a Torah matter.”

“We can’t respond because it’s mundane.”

All along, we’ve been operating under the assumption (when we read these verses from the Book of Proverbs and when we read this conversation in the Talmud) that we are the wise one in the example, engaged by the fool. What if the core of this teaching, however, is that the real fool is the one whose eyes are perpetually closed to the Torah around us? What if the real fool is the one whose eyes are perpetually closed to the Torah in the minute, in the minor, in everything? What if it’s us?

I suggest that the world is not built on Torah and mundane, but everything has a portion of it that is Torah and everything has a portion of it that is mundane. We might end up remaining silent because we think the matter is mundane, when it is the wise one who challenges us, and we remain foolish.

Let’s return thus to the silence: there are no fewer than 20 al cheits next week regarding sins of speech and conflict and argument. Several of them call out to us specifically. And we miss them if we don’t slow down. We don’t know what most of these things are, and though the machzor tries to translate them poetically, even then we get farther from what it actually means. And we’re trying to let our heart bleed, but we still miss the point.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanekha – we have sinned against You by succumbing to confusion, btimhon levav; we have sinned against you wittingly and unwittingly, b’yodim u’vlo yodim;by rashly judging others, biflilut.

Perhaps, the noblest of actions is to recognize the kernel of Torah that has been corrupted, or worse, overlooked, and stand up and speak out for the truth. In the case of the Torah, our Rabbis fifteen hundred years ago said very explicitly, we are not to remain silent and Torah really may be in all things.

And we can’t just chalk it up to, “That’s simply a fool being foolish about foolish things.” Instead, our challenge is to ensure that, if not next week, then certainly in the coming year, and when we get back here next Yom Kippur, we’re not beating our breasts saying, Al cheit shechatanu lefanekha b’shvuat shav, with empty promises. Because we’re rededicating ourselves to upholding Torah. This does not mean standing on the street corner saying, “Please put on tefillin. Let’s observe Shabbat. Let’s keep kosher.”

We’re saying, “How can we live in a just, right world and get people to embrace the nature and the notion that is written within our Torah, and our Judaism, and our tradition so that we could be a light unto the nations?”

Because now we reach the midpoint of our day and we have an entire Musaf Amidah ahead of us that challenges us to read a variety of biblical verses—verses that otherwise might be out of context. Some of them we skip over for the sake of time, but hope that we, following along in the machzor, are going to read. And some of them are truly inspirational, that you could spend an hour just focusing on one verse. But either way, the rabbis, when they put the machzor together, chose these verses to help us see Torah in the world around us.

When we chat with someone, especially when we disagree, we immediately judge. We stumble over whether we should be judging that person. But believe it or not, our tradition is very explicit and doesn’t dwell on that. “A fool is a fool.” It doesn’t say, “Well, maybe they’re not.”

Our tradition does, however, dwell on the idea that you have to check yourself if you’re the fool. Don’t worry about your neighbor. A fool is a fool. But if you’re the fool, and all of a sudden everyone is having a conversation with you and they start remaining silent, you know the jig is up.

And likewise, if you think you’re remaining silent because you’re being the wise one, it’s more important that we focus on the content of what each other is saying, and truly how we should respond, how we must respond, both with words and with action.

Even when it makes us uncomfortable, even if it causes deeper conflict and controversy. Because we are not a homogeneous religion, we are not a homogeneous people. We have different ideas and different opinions and we judge each other. But it’s how we respond and when we respond, and when we decide to risk everything to stand up and take the mantle of speaking truth to power, speaking Torah to power, that’s when the game changes entirely.

Because at the end, the Rabbis apply one other esoteric verse to this: baerev yalin bekhi v’laboker rinah: weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalms 30:5). Whether we think that that is a message that life is but temporary and our existence in this world is but temporary, so we better seize the day when we have the opportunity…

Or, we think, the world may be upside-down right now, but that’s only temporary…

Or we think that we have the power to bring the sunrise, we have the power to partner with God in creation in the face of destruction…

No matter how you read that message from the rabbis, at the end of the day, we choose what is Torah and we choose what is mundane. And the Torah we know is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it, and hopefully, all of its supporters are happy.

*Initial transcription by Eitan Weinstein