Ben Zoma says, “who is wise? He who learns from each person, as it says, ‘from all of my teachers, I have learned’ (Psalms 119:99). Who is mighty? He who subdues his urge, as it says, “better is one who is slow to anger than a man of physical strength.’ (Proverbs 16:32) Who is wealthy? He who rejoices in his portion, as it says, ‘when you consume the fruit of your own labor, you will rejoice and it will be good for you’ (Psalms 128:2). ‘Rejoice’–in this world; ‘it will be good for you’–in the world to come. Who is honored? He who honors the creations, as it is says, ‘all those who honor Me shall be honored’ (I Samuel 2:30). (Avot 4:1)
This mishna reveals to us a simple formula for attaining the attributes sought by most of humanity. If there is something “out there” that you want, recognize that in order to attain it, you have to begin by changing yourself.
One would have thought that wisdom is signified by twenty-five years of postgraduate study, an Ivy League diploma, or at least eighty years of life experience on Earth. But, according to Ben Zoma, wisdom is an orientation one has, and an ongoing process. Note that the mishna describes a wise person as “one who learns”, in the present tense. A wise person is not someone who has learned, but who is no longer involved in learning. Rather it is one who learns, now. In the context of Jewish learning, there are people who would like to become Torah scholars, to become what are called talmidei chachamim (“students of the wise”). But, what does it mean to “be” a talmid chacham? It means to learn–not to reach a certain plateau and stop there. After all, though the term is reserved for those who have mastered Torah, it literally means, “a wise student”. Furthermore, a wise person is one who learns from everyone, not only the elite, the lettered, or the renowned. Wisdom is to be found everywhere, within everyone.
The word for might in Hebrew is gevurah, which actually means “restraint”. Generally, when we hear the word “might”, we think of physical prowess, a demonstration of power. Here, however, might is defined as the ability to hold back, or, in psychological terms, to delay gratification. One who restrains his yetzer, or his evil urge, is the one who is mighty. As the supporting verse indicates, the yetzer hara most frequently manifests itself as the impulse to anger, and therefore, since we all face the challenge of life’s vicissitudes on a daily basis, we have ample opportunity to exercise our might.
Glancing at the stock charts, one can be overwhelmed at the thought of how much money is out there to be had, and how wide the gulf is between one’s own assets and the massive amount of wealth that is possible. According to our mishna, that is missing the point entirely. Do you desire wealth? Rejoice in what you have. There are people who own mansions of elephantine size, but who do not have joy to fill them with. A palace of twenty rooms of which the residents use at most four is an asset of which only twenty-five per cent is enjoyed. On the other hand, you can have someone who has very little, but who regards everything that he or she has as an invaluable gift from G-d, and sees every little bit as a cause for jubilation. Enjoy one hundred percent of what G-d gives you, and you will be wealthy.
One who wants honor should bestow honor upon others. The conventional wisdom concerning honor is that it is an arrow pointing towards oneself. But our mishna informs us that the opposite is true, as the verse states, “all those who honor Me shall be honored”. Honorability is a disposition, an attitude that enables a person to look upon the world and all of its inhabitants with esteem and reverence. According to Ben Zoma, this is a fulfillment of the verse, “all who honor Me”; honoring the creations is akin to honoring He Who created them. When we take this position, we set in motion a process in which others begin to see the value and meaning of existence, and our own honor is assured. Honorability begets honor. This is particularly relevant to the upcoming celebration of Lag BaOmer, when, in Jewish tradition, there is an emphasis on the mitzvah of “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). If every one of us would stop thinking (solely) about ourselves and involved ourselves entirely in the needs of others, we would find ourselves taken care of as well. May we be blessed to experience the abundant love, caring and compassion that has yet to be set free in this world.
GOOD SHABBOS! SHABBAT SHALOM!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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