Contemplation and Reflection
By Nachum Mohl
Ethics of the Fathers is a compilation of various statements from our sages regarding proper conduct in one's life. It is a book packed with choice bits of wisdom and written in a terse manner. It requires reflection and contemplation to reveal the profound meaning inside. This was the style of the sages of the Mishnaic period. All learning during their period was done first by memorization and later by deliberation and inspection.
In the fourth chapter of Ethics of the Fathers, Ben Azai said, "Do regard anyone with contempt and do not reject anything, for there is no man who des not have his hour and no thing which does not have its place." Rabbi Levitas of Yavne said, "Be exceedingly humble, that the hope of mankind is the worm."
Let us analyze these two statements which appear one after the other in the order of the Mishna.
Ben Azai is teaching us that everything in this world is created with a purpose. Even though you may perceive a person as worthless, with no redeeming qualities, yet you must realize that G-d has created him in with a purpose. Similarly, all things which exist in this universe are created by G-d with a definite purpose and therefore should not be despised even though it may appear that there is really no need for it. There is nothing in this universe, no matter how remote and distant from us that has no purpose in our lives.
Rabbi Levitas has also an important message to tell us, but his message is a bit more cryptic. First when he tells us to be exceeding humble, it is understood clearly that humility is an important virtue. What is he adding by telling us "
that the hope of mankind is the worm"? This does not seem to have any relationship to the beginning statement, "be exceedingly humble".
What has humility to do with the hope of mankind is the worm?
The answer is that we generally rely upon help from other people. When we have our difficulties in life, we turn to our family, our friends and our neighbors to get a little help to overcome a difficulty. This is proper and normal. But Rabbi Levitas tells us that our true hope is in G-d. Since all of our difficulties come from Him, we must really turn to him to understand for what reason are we being tested with difficulties?
It is not enough that we turn to our friends and families to help us weather crises; we must contemplate why G-d brought such a thing upon me. For only when we consider the source of our problems as being from G-d rather than the source of our immediate help do we stand a chance of coming into true love and fear of G-d.
In reality both Ben Azai and Rabbi Levitas have touched upon the same principle. This is the reason that one teaching is place next to the other.
The principle underlying these teachings is that G-d is the ultimate planner of our universe. Nothing happens with out his approval. When difficulties come into our lives, we must relate them back to their source.
It is not enough to blame the person or thing that is irritating us; rather, we must look beyond this person or thing to see its source, G-d. It is He who has placed everything in the universe; He is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in the world at large and in our lives, in particular.
In order to be able to successfully relate all of our life's occurrences back to the Creator of all, we must be of the humble spirit. A humble person will not get angry when he is treated disrespectfully, he will remain calm. This will enable him to reflect and see that the source of this problem really comes from G-d.
This is what the prophets give encouraged the Jews to do when they admonished them and prophesized their impending disaster, the exile and the destruction of the Temple.
Isaiah (1:3) tells us that a cow knows its owner and the donkey its master's feedbag, but Israel does not know G-d, they do not contemplate. Similarly, Jeremiah (9:19 and 23:20) calls for the Jews to consider their bad fortune in light of G-d's control of the world.
This is the most important facet in service to G-d, the contemplation and internalization of His workings in our lives. Only this will bring us to true love and fear of G-d; only this will bring us to see Him in our lives. This is the message of the sages, just as it was the message of the prophets.
from the September, 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine