Living Today from Ethics of the Fathers

    January 2011            
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Shmuel Hakoton -Sublime Outlook of a Sage of the Talmud

By Vardah Littmann

In chapter 4 of 'Ethics of the Fathers' verse 24 it states Shmuel Hakoton used to say a verse from Proverbs, "When your enemy falls, do not rejoice. When he stumbles be not glad. For G-d will see, and it will be evil in His eyes, and he will divert His anger from him".

Whenever it says in 'Ethics of the Fathers' the words: "he used to say", it means that the saying quoted was the essence of the person who was saying it. For whatever our sages taught, they also practiced. The saying was their way of life as well as part their character and personalities. The sages were totally unlike a professor of ethics who could teach one thing and still act differently to what he expounded, as is seen from Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher. Once he was discovered doing a despicable act, and was asked why he was doing the exact opposite of what he had taught. He answered, "In class I am Aristotle, and in life I am me."

At the beginning of the Second Temple era, the men of the Great Assembly, formulated the language of the Shmoneh Esrey prayer (i.e.the silent prayer said while standing) But with the waves of persecutions that had engulfed the Jewish nation in the ensuing years, and since at that time it was forbidden to write it down, by the time the Academy of Yavneh was set up after the destruction of the Second Temple, the sages had to re-introduce the prayer as it had been nearly forgotten. In that period of time there were different sects that were strangling the lifeblood out of the Nation of Israel. These sects were an integral part of our people, and yet were destroying us from within. The Sages of Yavneh knew strong medicine was required to uproot this disease. So it was decided to add an additional blessing to the 18 blessings of the "Shmoneh Esrey prayer". (The name still remained Shmoneh Esrey (eighteen) even though since then we have nineteen blessings it this prayer).

Rabbi Gamliel asked if there was a sage who could formulate the language of the blessing of 'concerning the Heretics'(today 'concerning the slanders' because of Christian censorship). Shmuel Hakoton volunteered and composed the blessing. All the other blessings of the 'Shmoneh Esrey Prayer' have a positive slant. The addtional blessing that concerns slanders is the only one of the blessings that asks for a negative thing. It asks for the eradication and cutting down of these enemies of our nation.

Now if the whole thrust of Shmuel Hakoton character was not be happy and rejoice in the down-fall of one's enemy, how could it be he was the very one who composed the prayer for the downfall of a group of our own people? For the answer we must try see who the real Shmuel Hakoton was.

Once all the sages were sitting in Yavneh and a heavenly voice was heard stating that there was one among them who was worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on him. Immediately all those present turned and looked Shmuel Hakoton. We see from this, that Shmuel Hakatan was the most pious person in his generation.

If so why was he called Shmuel Hakoton, "HaKoton" is Hebrew meaning 'The Small'? One reason was to differentiate him from Shmuel the prophet. But the main reason he was called Shmuel Hakoton was that he made himself small by his self modesty. He was so modest and self-effacing that even his life motto was not his own but a verse from Proverbs.

G-d says that He and an arrogant person can not live together. The arrogant person takes up all the space so there is no place for G-d. One who is small and humble leaves place for G-d. The humble one has nothing of his own, yet he has everything as he has G-d. And G-d has everything. When Shmuel Hakoton died childless at the age of 52, he was eulogized that he took all the wonderful things of this world with him. This was because he had nothing as he was so humble, and becuase of his humility, he had everything, therefore when he died, it went with him.

The 'Ethics of the Fathers' is the book of rules of character traits. Each of the chapters are divided according to varous topics and not chronologically according to when the sages lived. If we examine the verses immediately preceding the maxim of Shmuel Hakoton, we will understand in greater depth what Shmuel Hakoton is saying and who he is.

In chapter 4 of 'Ethics of the Fathers' paragraph 23 we are told not to look and see a person in his hour of disgrace. For instance. We have a neighbor who did us much harm. Now the police has come to arrest him. The verse says close your curtains and do not look out to see what is going on. But maybe in the recess of my home, I will take out a glass of schnapps and celebrate his downfall. Shmuel Hakoton says "No don't do that! "When your enemy falls, do not rejoice". Okay, so I sit and gloat, only in my heart of course, there will not be a hint of a smile on my lips. Again Shmuel Hakoton stops one and tells us that no we are not allowed to gloat, do not be glad even in the depth of your heart. This was Shmuel Hakoton, a completely humble, completely pure person without bad feelings against any one, even his greatest enemy. Since he was so clean and pure, he was exactly the one proper person to compose the blessing 'concerning the heretics'. He had no personal animosity with anyone and therefore he was able to compose it totally for the sake of heaven. A while after Shmuel Hakoton had composed the blessing concerning the heretics, he was the prayer leader. As he repeated the 'Shmoneh Esrey Prayer' he stopped at the very prayer that he had composed concerning the heretics and it seemed he had forgotten it. He waited an extremely long time at the podium trying to remember it and then finally he continued. It would seem that he had seen a heretic and so he had to control himself not to direct his prayer at that specific person but at the forces of the evil in general. The eradication of evil itself was his aim.

As Rabbi Yaakov says in chapter 4 of 'Ethics of the Fathers' paragraph 21 that this world is entrance way to the world to come, he continues in the next verse the best thing in this world is repentance. This was Shmuel Hakoton world outlook, even if a person is 'bad' now and is your enemy, he can repent and become completely good. Therefore he is not deserving of your mocking even though he is falling at this point. The fall can be his atonement and bring him back into the path of righteousness.

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The above article is based on a lesson given by Rabbi Sholom Cohen. Visit Vardah at her blogspot: a href="">


from the January 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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