Ethics – Now & Then 53 – Avot 4:1

Shalom and welcome friends and fellow talmidim/students to our new chapter of
‘Ethics Now & Then’ – Chapter 4.

May your studies be a blessing and bear much fruit in your life.
For His Name’s sake,
Keren Hannah

We begin with the standard verse that precedes each of the six chapters of Pirkei Avot:

All Israel has a share in the world to come, as it is said: “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the Land forever; they are the branch of My planting. My handiwork, in which to take pride” (Isaiah 60:21).

 

Chapter 4:1

Star of David ENT

Avot 4:1  Ben Zoma says: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person,
                as it is said: ‘From all my teachers I grew wise’ (Psalm 119:99).
                Who is strong? He who subdues his personal inclinations, as it
                is said, ‘He who is slow to anger is better than the strong man,
                and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city’
                (Proverbs 16:32). Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot, as it
                is said: ‘When you eat the labor of your hands, you are
                praiseworthy’ – in this world; ‘and all is well with you’ in the
                World to Come. Who is honored? He who honors others, as it is
                said:‘For those who honor Me I will honor, and those who scorn
                Me will be degraded’ (1 Samuel 2:30).

Shimon Ben Zoma was a star pupil of Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananiah, as was Shimon Ben Azzai. Neither procured the title of Rabbi but became highly regarded scholars and exegetes of the Scriptures and Halakha. Not many of Ben Zoma’s sayings are recorded but those that are, such as this one, have become famous. Another example is his beautiful sentence on repentance: “Hast thou, in repentance, been ashamed in this world, thou wilt not need to be ashamed before God in the next.”

They also are renowned as being two of the four men who entered the Pardes (meaning orchard or Paradise – a synonym for the study of deep esoteric and mystical teachings). The Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 14b, relates that the four scholars were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva. The holy Ben Azzai gazed, was overcome and died. Regarding him the verse states, ‘Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones’ (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed. He became ill and it is said he lost his sanity. Regarding him the verse states, ‘Did you find honey? Eat only as much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it’ (Proverbs 25:16). Acher (meaning ‘other’ or ‘different’) refers to the sage Elisha ben Avuya who, it says, ‘cut down the plantings,’ refuted it all and became a heretic after the experience. Rabbi Akiva, it is said, entered in peace and left in peace and went on to become the leading Rabbi of the era. [1]

Ben Zoma says: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person, as it is said: ‘From all my teachers I grew wise’ (Psalm 119:99).

In this opening section of the verse, Ben Zoma empasizes the importance of gaining wisdom above the issues of personal preferences or prejudices. He lived in the 1st Century but his words convey a significant truth today. Modern history gives evidence of atrocities on a larger scale than before. This can be viewed largely as a result of the obliteration of the value of each individual in the context of the larger “masses.” A few awful examples are: Hitler’s Nazi dictum that the Jews and other minorities were to be murdered and eradicated, Communism’s stifling of the individual in conformity with the system, Christianity’s “Convert or die,” Islam’s “Sumbit or perish,” Rwanda, Sudan, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Iran and on and on…. In contrast, Ben Zoma’s exhortation that there is something to be found in every human being, highlights the value that God Himself places on every person. Each one bears a stamp of Himself, for all are created in His image. [2]

Judaism has preserved this truth in teaching that the person who saves one life has saved a whole world. Every person is unique and only God knows a person’s heart and mind; their inner thoughts, reflections, knowledge and experience. Therefore, there is something new and unique to learn from each one. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, everyone has something of unique value to impart to others.

We even can apply this truth to objects; as a Hassidic Rabbi once said:
“Everything can teach us something, and not merely everything that God has created. What man has made has also something to teach us.”
“What can we learn from a train?” one hassid asked dubiously.
“That because of one second you can miss everything.”
“And from the telegraph?”
“That every word is counted and charged for.”
“And the telephone?”
“That what we say here is heard there.” [3]

Who is strong? He who subdues his personal inclinations, as it is said, ‘He who is slow to anger is better than the strong man, and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city’ (Proverbs 16:32).

In most cultures, the one who is in control of others in one way or another, whether it be of a government, a business, a religious organization or even a family, is seen as strong and mighty. Interestingly, Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a noted psychiatrist and teacher, points out that the converse can be true. Very often those who seek control over others do so to cover feelings of unworthiness and inferiority and to present an illusion of strength. Any existing control of others, however, does not satisfy the underlying feelings and he must continually strive to extend his control. “This explains why conquerors are never satisfied with their conquests and continue in their efforts to extend their borders and bring more and more people under their control.” [4] A perfect biblical example of true leadership is seen in Moses who was reluctant to assume a position of authority. Twerski adds, “The indicator of good self-esteem is not demanding a position of dominance but, to the contrary, evincing an attitude of humility.”

One of the strongest human emotions to overcome is anger. It is the flame that ignites many other negative passions such as hatred and violence, which result in physical abuse, as well as resentment – a silent scorn which results in mental and emotional abuse. Anger is rooted in unhealthy pride and self defense of one’s own weaknesses. Rabbi Twerski also notes: “This may also explain why an abusive husband tries to crush his wife and render her totally helpless.” And why one people group terrorizes another.

The Sages point out that everyone has a good inclination, yetzer ha’tov, and a bad inclination, yetzer ha’rah. Our constant battle in life is to strengthen our inclination towards what is good and positive and to overcome our temptations to indulge in what is bad and negative. It takes strength of character first to recognize and then to control one’s own personal weaknesses or harmful inclinations. This recognition and healthy change can only be achieved in true humility.

Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot, as it is said: ‘When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy’ – in this world; ‘and all is well with you’ in the World to Come.

Wealth, contrary to modern opinion, cannot buy happiness. The ability to be content with your immediate circumstances, no matter what they are, is the key to real happiness. How does one cultivate this ability to be content? God has revealed the answer in His Word, which is the framework for the meaning and purpose of the life He has given us.

We are here to worship and serve Him; to do all He puts in our hands to do in the fulfillment of the unique plan He has for each of His children. As we walk in His purposes, doing His will to the best of our ability, He provides us with ‘our daily bread’ and we can rest content, trusting in His faithfulness; both now, in our short sojourn on earth, and for all eternity.

Who is honored? He who honors others, as it is said:‘For those who honor Me I will honor, and those who scorn Me will be degraded’  (1 Samuel 2:30).

A person who has gained the above qualities, or is in the process of working towards them, is one truly deserving of honor whether or not his or her peers acknowledge and respect them for that fact.

Ben Zoma concludes with the thought that when one recognizes these traits in others and gives honor to them, one will gain the recognition of others as well. Interestingly, he connects the concept with the honor of God, who says He will honor those who honor Him and will degrade those who scorn Him. When one mocks, disrespects, or belittles another person, one created in His image, it is as though one is doing so to God Himself. Yeshua illustrated this with the positive declaration that when the Son of Man comes in His glory to judge the earth, He will say to the righteous to whom He bestows reward: “…As you did it [a deed of goodness and kindness] to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [5]

Most people work all their lives in striving to achieve some form of riches, wisdom, honor or power. Sadly, this can result in unhealthy forms of competition and envy, with attempts to break down the one perceived as a threat, rather than to honor and appreciate his or her inherent and unique gifts and to extend encouragement and support. Why is this? Perhaps because the one who seeks glory for himself sees the other as an obstacle to be eliminated. The Word of God, on the other hand, proclaims that only God – the Creator and Giver of all gifts – is deserving of all glory. Ben Zoma’s words echo that of the prophet Jeremiah (9:22),

“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not the rich man glory in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord
who practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth.
For in these things I delight”, declares the Lord.

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Footnotes:

1. Referenced in WIkipedia – Ben Azzai
2. Genesis 1:26
3. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol.2, Feldheim Inc., 7
4. Rabbi Abrajam J. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers, 199
5. Matthew 25:40

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