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Mishlei 31-01 (A Mother’s Challenge) [31-1 thru 31:9]
NOTE: For a PDF copy of this segment, please click here. This will enable you to print out the entire text of the article. [Rev 2]
Key Concepts of Mishlei 31-01 (A Mother’s Challenge)
This is the first segment of a chapter that addresses the role of women in Jewish life. The segment reflects the power of the Jewish mother to guide her children in reaching their potential and fulfilling their mission in life. The challenge of being a Jewish mother is demonstrated by the energy and wisdom that Bas Sheva put into her advice to King Shlomo after she was widowed.
Bas Sheva was inspired to admonish her son when she saw that the heady experience of royalty was distorting the clarity of mind that he needed to be an effective king. She challenged him to question himself and see that his behavior was being affected by the women that he married in fulfillment of his public role as a powerful king.
As a woman giving advice to her son, she was fully aware that men and woman have different ways of thinking and are meant to complement each other. The relationship between a husband and wife depends upon their having a positive influence on each other while still maintaining their own distinctive character. When the interaction between men and women becomes excessive, they begin to lose their own unique perspective and their influence upon each other loses its value, ultimately becoming harmful. Thus, she advised her son against overdoing the company of women.
Indirectly, Bas Sheva warned Shlomo against indulging in a love for luxury, which is characteristic of royalty and those exposed to great wealth. The royal style of living is commonly associated with the drinking of wine and other alcoholic beverages. This can be especially harmful since it directly affects a king’s ability to maintain the clear head he needs to deal with the challenges of his role as judge and teacher of his people.
Being elevated to power is essential for a king to be able to govern his people and defend his kingdom but it also brings with it many destructive forces that are inherent in life at court. Bas Sheva knew this and she cautioned her son about it.
Exploring Mishlei
PART 1. A MOTHER’S REBUKE. Shlomo identifies himself as the author of this chapter, although he refers to himself as King Lemuel, meaning “for G-d.” He begins by explaining that this first segment is actually a rebuke against his own behavior and his failure to live up to the mission implied by his title.
The rebuke was issued by his mother, Bas Sheva, when he showed signs of the bad influence of his new wife, the daughter of Pharaoh. Bas Sheva began by phrasing her rebuke in the form a series of questions, challenging him to think about what he was doing with his life. The fact that Shlomo had the courage to acknowledge her rebuke was an indication of his integrity and his humility. By sharing the rebuke with us in Mishlei, Shlomo has revealed an effective way to express an admonishment, that is, by issuing a challenge in the form of a question rather than a direct accusation.
(א) דִּבְרֵי לְמוּאֵל מֶלֶךְ מַשָּׂא אֲשֶׁר יִסְּרַתּוּ אִמּוֹ: (ב) מַה בְּרִי וּמַה בַּר בִּטְנִי וּמֶה בַּר נְדָרָי:
(1) The words of King Lemuel. The theme [is the rebuke with] which his mother admonished him: (2) What, my son? What, O son of my womb? And what O son of my vows?
PART 2. WOMEN AND WINE. Bas Sheva recognized two identifying factors in the changes that had come over her son. The first was allowing himself to be overly involved with the women of his life. She emphasized the weakening effect of excessive physical intimacy and she hinted at the emotional and spiritual deterioration which the wrong kind of woman can bring about.
The second factor, which became especially noticeable during the wedding celebration, was the influence of wine. She pointed out that alcoholic drinks interfere with the sobriety and clear thinking that a responsible leader must exhibit. Offering wine to a despondent person can be an act of kindness, but for one who is already in a joyful state, the wine can cloud his ability to act wisely.
(ג) אַל תִּתֵּן לַנָּשִׁים חֵילֶךָ וּדְרָכֶיךָ לַמְחוֹת מְלָכִין: (ד) אַל לַמְלָכִים לְמוֹאֵל אַל לַמְלָכִים שְׁתוֹ יָיִן וּלְרוֹזְנִים או אֵי שֵׁכָר: (ה) פֶּן יִשְׁתֶּה וְיִשְׁכַּח מְחֻקָּק וִישַׁנֶּה דִּין כָּל בְּנֵי עֹנִי: (ו) תְּנוּ שֵׁכָר לְאוֹבֵד וְיַיִן לְמָרֵי נָפֶשׁ: (ז) יִשְׁתֶּה וְיִשְׁכַּח רִישׁוֹ וַעֲמָלוֹ לֹא יִזְכָּר עוֹד:
(3) Don’t give your strength to women, and your conduct to [drinking that] destroys kings. (4) Not for kings, O Lemuel. Not for kings is wine drinking. And not for rulers is [to be asking] “Where is strong drink.” (5) Lest he drink and forget [Moshe] the lawgiver, and [lest he] pervert judgment regarding any of the disadvantaged people. (6) Give strong drink to the wretched, and wine to the embittered soul. (7) Let him drink and forget his poverty and not remember his misery any more.
PART 3. ROYAL DUTY. Bas Sheva concludes her admonishment by reminding her son that he has an important mission to fulfill, a mission that requires clear thinking and devotion to integrity. That mission involves seeing to it that justice is done and speaking in defense of those who are unable to speak for themselves.
(ח) פְּתַח פִּיךָ לְאִלֵּם אֶל דִּין כָּל בְּנֵי חֲלוֹף: (ט) פְּתַח פִּיךָ שְׁפָט צֶדֶק וְדִין עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן:
(8) Open your mouth on behalf of the voiceless, in the judgment of any articulate people. (9) Open your mouth, judge righteously to see that justice is done for the poor and destitute.
Learning Mishlei
PART 1. A MOTHER’S REBUKE.
(א) דִּבְרֵי לְמוּאֵל מֶלֶךְ 
מַשָּׂא אֲשֶׁר יִסְּרַתּוּ אִמּוֹ:
This chapter contains the words of King Shlomo, who is referred to here as Lemuel, meaning “for G-d” — דִּבְרֵי לְמוּאֵל מֶלֶךְ The initial theme is the rebuke with which his mother Bas Sheva admonished him  מַשָּׂא אֲשֶׁר יִסְּרַתּוּ אִמּוֹ , after he celebrated his marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter with more jubilation than he showed in celebrating his construction of the Bais HaMikdash. His mother feared he had become vulnerable to an inappropriate influence and said to him:
(ב) מַה בְּרִי
What are you doing, my son  מַה בְּרִי ? You may be a great king, but you are still my son, and you need to listen to my wisdom. Since you are my son, you know that I am only concerned with your well-being.
וּמַה בַּר בִּטְנִי
וּמֶה בַּר נְדָרָי:
And what are you doing, O son of my womb  וּמַה בַּר בִּטְנִי ? And what are you doing, O son of my vows  וּמֶה בַּר נְדָרָי ? I made these vows before you were born, when I prayed for a son who would be zealous in his dedication to learning Torah and serving Hashem. But now I see signs of dissipation and sensuality in your behavior. My bond to you as your mother is greater than my loyalty to women in general and therefore, I am not reluctant to advise you to be careful about your relationships with women.
PART 2. WOMEN AND WINE.
(ג) אַל תִּתֵּן לַנָּשִׁים חֵילֶךָ 
וּדְרָכֶיךָ לַמְחוֹת מְלָכִין:
Don’t give up your strength and stamina by allowing yourself to be attracted to women  אַל תִּתֵּן לַנָּשִׁים חֵילֶךָ  that offer you the pleasures of intimacy. And don’t give up your conduct to any other behavior such as excessive drinking that destroys kings  וּדְרָכֶיךָ לַמְחוֹת מְלָכִין  and men of responsibility. Use your energies wisely instead of squandering them in debauchery or in behavior that can disqualify you from sovereignty.
(ד) אַל לַמְלָכִים לְמוֹאֵל 
אַל לַמְלָכִים שְׁתוֹ יָיִן 
וּלְרוֹזְנִים אֵי שֵׁכָר:
It is not for kings  אַל לַמְלָכִים …. You especially should realize this, my son Lemuel  לְמוֹאֵל , who is destined to be “for G-d”. It is not even for ordinary kings to be given over to drinking wine  אַל לַמְלָכִים שְׁתוֹ יָיִן and it is not even for ordinary rulers to ask “Where is the strong drink  וּלְרוֹזְנִים אֵי שֵׁכָר ”. I prayed for a son who would be devoted to a special destiny of avodas Hashem and leadership of the Jewish Nation. Do not engage in behavior that interferes with your mission.
(ה) פֶּן יִשְׁתֶּה וְיִשְׁכַּח מְחֻקָּק 
וִישַׁנֶּה דִּין כָּל בְּנֵי עֹנִי:
Lest he drink and forget Moshe, the lawgiver — פֶּן יִשְׁתֶּה וְיִשְׁכַּח מְחֻקָּק , who taught that a person may not rule on Torah law while under the influence of liquor. For such a person may pervert the judgment of any of the disadvantaged people  וִישַׁנֶּה דִּין כָּל בְּנֵי עֹנִי , who are unable to fight back against injustice.
(ו) תְּנוּ שֵׁכָר לְאוֹבֵד 
וְיַיִן לְמָרֵי נָפֶשׁ:
Alcoholic drinks were created for a purpose, but not for you, my son. Instead, give strong drink to the wretched person  תְּנוּ שֵׁכָר לְאוֹבֵד , who has lost hope. Such a person seeks to lose consciousness of his desperate situation. A mild intoxicant is not enough to wipe out his awareness of his tragic situation. And give wine to those of embittered soul  וְיַיִן לְמָרֵי נָפֶשׁ , who need to be cheered up because of their poverty or because they are in mourning for a loved one.
(ז) יִשְׁתֶּה וְיִשְׁכַּח רִישׁוֹ 
וַעֲמָלוֹ לֹא יִזְכָּר עוֹד:
Let him drink and forget his poverty  יִשְׁתֶּה וְיִשְׁכַּח רִישׁוֹ  at least for a while. And let him not remember his misery any more — וַעֲמָלוֹ לֹא יִזְכָּר עוֹד  so that he will not be handicapped by the memory of the burdens he had to face.
PART 3. ROYAL DUTY.
(ח) פְּתַח פִּיךָ לְאִלֵּם 
אֶל דִּין כָּל בְּנֵי חֲלוֹף:
If you refrain from drink, you will have a clear head and be able to perform your duty. Then you will be able to open your mouth on behalf of the voiceless — פְּתַח פִּיךָ לְאִלֵּם , who are unable to present their case in court. Take the initiative in the judgment of any inarticulate people — אֶל דִּין כָּל בְּנֵי חֲלוֹף , who confuse one idea for another and prove incapable of arguing their case coherently.
(ט) פְּתַח פִּיךָ שְׁפָט צֶדֶק 
וְדִין עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן:
Open your mouth, judge righteously — פְּתַח פִּיךָ שְׁפָט צֶדֶק , to assure fair treatment for all who come before you. And go out of your way to see that justice is done for the poor and destitute — וְדִין עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן .
Sources
The primary sources used in the interpretation of the verses of this segment are listed below.
א – אבן עזרא, המאירי, אלשיך, מצודות, הגר”א
ב – רש”י, רבינו יונה, חנוך לנער, מצודות
ג – רש”י, רלב”ג, חנוך לנער, מצודות
ד – רש”י, רלב”ג, אבן יחייא, הגר”א,
ה – רלב”ג, הגר”א
ו – רש”י, רלב”ג, אלשיך, מלבי”ם
ז – אבן יחייא
ח – מצודות
ט – מצודות