Pirchai Avot & Ben Zoma



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Ethics of the Fathers

By Nachum Mohl

The manner of the sages of the Talmud is to express their thoughts in a concise manner through which both the simple person and a wise man can appreciate their ideas. The simple man will understand the truth of the surface thought; the wise man through his intelligence will understand the deeper concept upon which the statement is based. Each person, according to his level of intelligence will take from the sage's statement a message that he may use to enhance his life.

Ben Zoma, a sage who lived some two thousand years ago, had one of his ideas recorded for us in Pirchai Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers:

    Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man, as is written: "From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation. " (Psalms 119:99)
    Who is strong? One who overpowers his evil inclination, as is stated, "Better one who is slow to anger than one who is mighty, and one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city." (Proverbs 16:32)
    Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot, as is stated: "If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you"; "fortunate are you in this world, and good is to you" in the World to Come." (Psalms 128:2).
    Who is honorable? One who honors his fellow man, as is stated: "For to those who honor me, I accord honor; they that despise me shall be shamed." (I Samuel 2:30)

Ben Zoma lists four qualities: wisdom, strength, wealth and honor. If you notice he has explained them in a manner of understanding which is completely opposite of our common definition. Let us explain:

    Wisdom, we normally attribute to a man who already knows almost everything. We do not consider a wise man one who must learn from all people, meaning he even learns from even illiterate or young people. We consider a wise man as a person who already knows everything.
    Strength, we attribute to a powerful man, a strong man, someone who can force his will over someone else, like a boxing champion or a victorious general. We do not think of a person who keeps his evil inclination in check by refraining from eating chocolate chip cookies as a particularly strong person.
    Wealth, also we attribute to someone who has a remarkable abundance of money, beyond the dreams of most average people. We never think of a person who earns a meager income and lives happily within his means as a particularly wealthy fellow.
    Honor, is something we normally give to someone who possesses some type of special attribute such as wisdom, strength or wealth. We never think of honor as a thing in of itself. Honor is something we bestow upon a person for an achievement as acknowledgement of his superiority.

Let us begin to analyze Ben Zoma's statement:

What we generally think of as wisdom, strength, wealth and honor are based on our external perceptions of them. Ben Zoma has redefined these four attributes to correspond to an inner concept. Let us continue to explain in greater detail:

Wisdom is no longer an absolute measure of knowledge but rather linked to an inner drive to know. It is not really relevant if the person actually knows that much to be considered a wise man according to Ben Zoma. What is the decisive factor is his love of wisdom. If he loves wisdom to the extent that he is willing "lower himself" to go even to simple or young people to gain understanding, then according to Ben Zoma, the adjective, "wise" applies to him even if he has not yet accumulated enough wisdom to be recognized as a "wise man". Eventually he will realize his goal, for he his willing to deprecate himself for the sake of wisdom. This is so even to the extreme that by exhibiting his ignorance he is deprived of the honor that is generally reserved for wise men.

Strength according to Ben Zoma is not muscles and brawn, a special physical talent, but inner fortitude to control himself alone. Now if we were told that a certain person is able to refrain from eating chocolate cake we certainly would not give him the honor of a victorious general returning from war. Yet it is precisely this that Ben Zoma refers to as being strong. Since he has inner strength he can rule over himself, that is Ben Zoma's definition of strength.

Similarly with wealth, we would never accord honor to a man who lives happily within his income, not desiring the luxuries that the rest of "civilization" covets. So this man, too, would never be honored for his achievements of living a modest life.

Therefore the whole concept of honor cannot apply as we stated above, that it is recognition of the achievement of some special attribute, logically wisdom, wealth or power. If this be so, what does Ben Zoma consider honor to be?

In truth, Ben Zoma has given us the answer in his definition of honor: One who honors his fellow man!

But let us be sensible! What possible honor is there is honoring his fellow men, especially when fellow men include even simple people! True, he may be a fine, humane and considerable fellow, but honor, there just isn't!

The real answer is in the citation that Ben Zoma gives us: "For to those who honor me, I accord honor; they that despise me shall be shamed." Ben Zoma is speaking in relation to G-d. The true honor is that honor which G-d accords to man, not the flattery that man uses to fool his fellow man by according him an honor for an outstanding talent or ability (which in reality comes from G-d).

When a person gives honor to all, because he sees in them a manifestation of G-d's creation and living force in the world, he is acknowledging that all men are an extension of G-d in the world. Because of this, every person is deserving of respect – not just those who possess an external sign of G-d's blessing.

Since this person acknowledges G-dliness in all of G-d's creations, G-d Himself will accord this man honor.

G-d exists in the high heavens, and He exists down here. He is manifest in each and every person. Therefore a person who sees only the exterior façade of life will slight those people who have no external means worthy of honor. This means, in reality, he is slighting G-d, who is not just the creator of all, but who actively dwells in every person, great or small.

However, should a person choose to ignore the fact that not only does God exist down here, he is making light of G-d's creations. This means that he is incapable of seeing the glory and greatness of G-d in the world. He thinks that G-d exists somewhere in the high heavens and not down on earth. This is the demeaning that is in the verse: "For to those who honor me, I accord honor; they that despise me shall be shamed." He brings upon himself his own dishonor. G-d does not punish him; he demeans himself for not looking for the G-dliness in the world.

Ben Zoma was only one of the great sages that are mentioned in the Ethics of the Fathers. All of their thoughts require contemplation to extract the beautiful and deep message that is within all of them. Now is a great time to begin reading the Ethics of the Fathers and contemplating their deep ideas.

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