Everyone wants to know the secret to wisdom. I can’t share it with you, because then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. (To be fair, that statement isn’t necessarily true. Everyone wants to know the secret to wealth. Only some people want to know the secret to wisdom.)
Our Sages tell us that a wise person is one who contemplates the ramifications of his actions. He doesn’t just look at the here and now, but he thinks through the long-term effects of his decisions before proceeding.
I think about this often during my morning commute to Teaneck. Although, from Monsey to Teaneck, the most direct route is with the Garden State Parkway to Route 17 to Route 4, during the morning there is often residual traffic from the George Washington Bridge on Route 4 that would cost a few extra minutes. Therefore, most mornings I come with the Palisades Parkway. Doing so means driving past Teaneck all the way to the George Washington Bridge, before getting onto Route 4 and traveling west for a few miles.
Just before the GWB, the road splits. For a few feet the lanes run parallel, but then the lane to the right lead to the tolls, after which the road leads directly onto the bridge. To the left, the road continues back into New Jersey.
It’s striking that the sudden split in the road leads to two different worlds. One leads into Manhattan – skyline, congestion, city traffic, and all – while the other leads back into rural New Jersey.
Throughout Sefer Mishlei, Shlomo HaMelech contrasts the fool with the wise man. According to the wisest of men, the fool doesn’t refer to one with limited intellectual capacities, but rather one who doesn’t think through the consequences of his actions. The fool lives in the moment, driven by the now, and doesn’t contemplate the long-term ramifications of his actions. A wise person, on the other hand, weighs his options and proceeds with caution, making a calculated decision that he feels is his best recourse in the moment and for the foreseeable future.
The Purim story contains the story of a fool and a wise man. The fool is Achashveirosh, a man driven by lust, temper, paranoia, and ego. In a fit of rage, he executes his wife, and at a later point, his highest-ranking minister. He agrees to the genocide of a nation of loyal taxpayers because of deep enmity. Then he makes an about-face and humiliates his prime minister, forcing him to lead his archenemy on a massive parade through the streets of the capital. His only credential for Queen is exterior beauty, which he ascertains through an intimate relationship. Knowing that he usurped the throne by killing his adversaries, he lives in fear that the same will happen to him. Achashveirosh’s decisions are dictated by his whims and emotional temperature at any given time. He lives for now, without considering how it will affect tomorrow.
Mordechai is the polar opposite of Achashveirosh. His every decision is made with forethought and equanimity, even in the face of crisis. When all the citizens of Shushan are invited to a royal feast, he sees through the veneer, and warns the Jews that this is a sinister event. Although it seems that the party is a celebration of the consolidation of the king’s monarchy, Mordechai recognizes that in truth it’s a celebration of the fact that the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash has been halted and the Jews would languish in exile.
When Esther is taken to the palace, he exhorts her not to reveal her identity. He isn’t exactly sure why, but he senses that secrecy is necessary for what will occur later on.
When the evil decree was dispatched, and the nation could have been reduced to panic and terror, Mordechai remains a voice of reason and equanimity. He is able to rally the nation to mass repentance until the decree was annulled.
Our greatest mishaps happen in moments of weakness, when we get lost in the moment and don’t think about later on. How many arguments and fights result from someone jumping to conclusions or allowing even justified frustration to consume him?
Conversely, our greatest moments come when we retain our composure during the most difficult and trying moments.
Purim celebrates the victory of self-control over the lack of self-control, a holiday of wisdom triumphing over folly, of emotional strength over emotional weakness.
Often, two paths may set out along the same route and run parallel to each other at the beginning. The wise man looks ahead to see where the road will lead and has the self-control to maintain his direction along that path until he successfully arrives at his destination of choice. Even when the path he chooses is the road less traveled, he is undeterred and undaunted!
“And Mordechai will not kneel and will not bow!”