Meditations on a Prayer

The reading below is from the daily afternoon service (mincha). It snags my attention each time we reach the page.

“You graciously endow mortals with intelligence, teaching us wisdom and understanding. Grant us knowledge, discernment and wisdom. Praised are You, Lord who graciously grants intelligence.”

What differentiates intelligence from discernment from wisdom? How does understanding fit in?  Here’s how I sometimes puzzle it out: God pre-programs us with the capacity to learn skills and information (that’s the endowing us with intelligence.) Next, life serves up experiences of pain and joy, triumphs and travails, teaching us lessons that ultimately (and hopefully) lead us into wisdom and understanding.

Then we come to a plea to be granted three seemingly similar traits that might even build upon one another. We achieve knowledge through experiences. The more experiences, the more knowledge which enables us to discern — right from wrong, when to speak and when to listen, when to work and when to rest. From this discernment we begin to lead lives imbued with wisdom, surely slipping and messing up but learning from those experiences as well.

Finally we return to intelligence, but this time by thanking God for “graciously granting” it to us. This turn of phrase is a bit different than being endowed with it.  The latter has a cut and dry sense of being provided with something. To my ear, the “graciously granting” carries the subtle possibility that God could just as well not grant us intelligence. It is by God’s grace that we are granted the gift of intelligence. What we do with this capacity will lead to a life of wisdom, understanding and discernment. Or not. It’s up to us.

photo courtesy of Martin Darvick