Carpe BonumBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
A person’s reputation is worth more than the finest oil and the day of his death is better than the day of his birth (because it is known what kind of person he was, which is uncertain at birth). It is better to pay a consolation call to mourners than to dance at a festive occasion. (The feasting is only a kindness to the living and one can procrastinate attending, intending to go the next time. The consolation is a kindness to both the living and the deceased and it cannot be postponed.) Anger can be better than laughter – both when G-d chastises us for our misdeeds and when we let one another know how we truly feel, rather than masking animosity behind a phony smile. Wise people contemplate their ultimate fates but fools only think about immediate gratification. It’s better for a person to hear words of rebuke from someone wise than to hear songs from a fool. The laughter of fools is as substantial as the sound of firewood crackling under a pot, i.e., not very.
When fools mock the wise, it confuses their thoughts and causes them to ignore their G-d-given insight. The end of a matter is better than the beginning, so those who are patient are better than those who are quick-tempered. Don’t be so anxious to get involved in controversy! It’s fools that enjoy arguments.
Don’t say that the old days were better than now and that they enjoyed greater good. Every generation enjoys what their actions merit. The wisdom of earlier generations was a benefit to all mankind. Whoever is under the aegis of wisdom enjoys prosperity and life. Take a look at the world G-d made, including the ultimate fates of the righteous and the wicked; who can change his fate after death? (No one.) When you have the opportunity to do good, seize it. That way, when the wicked are punished, you will be a witness and not a participant in that event. (“Seize the good” is “carpe bonum” in Latin, hence the title of this synopsis.)
Solomon says that he spent his life pondering the meaning of everything. There are righteous people who die despite their goodness and wicked people who just keep on going. Don’t be too pious or too wise – there’s a limit to everything. (For example, Saul was trying too hard to be pious and wise when he spared people he shouldn’t have. His inappropriate application of normally meritorious traits created far more problems than it avoided!) And certainly one should not be foolish or evil! And if you have been a little foolish or evil, that’s not license to make it any worse! If you do, it’s ultimately self-destructive. A person who is in proper awe of G-d will proceed appropriately in this matter.
Wisdom gives a person more power than ten kings. (Rashi enumerates ten evil kings.) There is no perfect person who never sins, so we must all inspect our actions. Also, don’t listen to what people say (like Saul, who listened to slander and wiped out a city because of it). You don’t want to hear what people say about you because you, too, have often spoken ill of others.
Solomon says that he tested the following with wisdom in an effort to become wise, but that it was beyond his reach. What was it he sought to grasp? What’s above and below, before and after. (Who can grasp the nature of time and the universe? Not even Solomon, the wisest of all men!) When this failed, he decided to investigate G-d’s way in running the world, as well as the nature of evil, foolishness and insanity. He found that a woman who is a trap is a worse fate for a man than death. A good man can escape her wiles, but a fool will fall into her clutches. (Rashi says that the woman is heresy. This is a fairly common Biblical metaphor. See also Talmud Avodah Zara 17a.) Solomon says that he has looked and he has found one outstanding man in a thousand, and so far no women. Why are people so messed up? G-d may have made man inclined toward being upright, but when males and females are paired up, they get into trouble together.