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Chochma & Bina, Wisdom & Understanding

This week my wife and I are on Hornby Island, on the coast of beautiful British Columbia. It’s here, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean that I feel most in awe of the natural world and all its creatures.

A walk on the beach is a lesson in nature’s complexity. Whitecaps give way to waves churning onto the shore, where winter storms have deposited a year’s worth of driftwood and sea weed. Seals and sea lions maintain an ongoing truce as they patrol their respective aquatic territories for fish, and eagles soar and dive against a ever-changing cloudy backdrop. A few moments of observation is all it takes to realize that the interplay of these and every other element of the scenery is far too much for my human eyes and mind to comprehend. Marveling at the majesty of it, my wife asks “do you think someone could write an algorithm for life at the sea shore?” It’s a good question for a scientifically-minded person like myself. I think about the many processes that culminate in this time and place; Tides and other hydrological effects, biology, meteorology; But I can’t possibly comprehend them all. Instead I choose to appreciate the miracle of this moment through awe. “Ma Gadlu Ma’aseacha Hashem, Koolam bechocha assita” How great are your works Haashem, all you have created in Wisdom.”

Humanity strives for information, hoping that with scientific explanation and development we can meet the challenges facing the world today. However, we continue to lack wisdom (chochma) and understanding (bina). Without these two qualities, it is difficult if not impossible to truly acquire and use knowledge (da’at)

My whole life I have been fascinated by the dark and mysterious oceans covering the vast majority of our planet. Over the years I have gained knowledge and acquired facts about the oceans, but as I look out over the waters today I do so with a lack of true understanding of the impossibly complex interconnectedness of the ocean world. Can any of us truly understand the oceans, especially when all we see is the surface of this deep and vast world? Our tradition finds aquatic animals so foreign to us, so removed from the terrestrial animals we know, that the laws of Kashrut don’t even consider them meat. Many decision-makers still believe that they can ‘Wash all our problems away.’ Even with our best scientific devices, we lack Bina, understanding, of the oceans and the creatures that inhabit them.

Turning now to the life on land, two (or are they one?) of my favorite trees are found in a patch of old growth forest on one of the many bluffs on the island. Judging by their height and girth, they are far older than any living person, having patiently born witness to the rise and fall of the ocean tides for generations. Though they began their lives as separate entities, they have since fused part way up the trunk. They are linked by a shared limb through which they share water, nutrients and presumably much more. Rabbi Daniel Seigel (The Hornbisher Rebbe) has named them Hochma and Bina; a reminder that these two qualities must be found together in our search for da’at, knowledge.

I wish I could say how to find true wisdom and understanding. It took the trees a human generation just to find each other and begin to share. Fortunately we have generations of Jewish tradition pointing us back to the Creator, to the source of wisdom, understanding and knowledge. It gives us tools to be in awe and admit that we cannot comprehend the grandiosity of our world.

Ma Gadlu Ma’aseacha Hashem, Koolam bechocha assita” How great are your works Haashem, all you have created in Wisdom.”

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  • Deborah Klee Wenger
    December 30, 2010 (7:19 am)

    Beautiful words. May we all be infused with awareness of Hashem’s works!


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