By Rabbi Y. Dov Krakowski
In the first mishna of this week’s perek in Pirkei Avos the tanna Ben-Zoma makes several points: 1) who is wise? One who learns from all people; 2) Who is strong? One who conquers his negative inclination. 3) Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has. 4) Who is honorable? One who honors all of mankind. Each one of these question and answer items has an accompanying passuk to validate it.
While there is much to be said for each one of these points there
seems to be some sort of pattern, some sort of common denominator to Ben Zoma’s statement. Additionally, while the concepts he puts forward are familiar to us, there is nevertheless something novel and unique in his approach.
Stepping back from Ben-Zoma’s approach for a moment will allow us
to examine what we would have thought to be the definitions of the aforementioned. While doing so let us contrast and compare the way most people would define these concepts versus how Ben-Zoma does. Usually one would define a wise person as someone who knows a lot, not someone who needs to learn from others.
Ben-Zoma’s approach seems almost the opposite of how “most people” would define it. When one thinks of someone being strong, the image usually is that of a tyrant or a big-boss figure – in other words, someone who can do as he wishes without necessarily exercising self-control. This, again, is in essence contradictory to Ben-Zoma’s view.
If we think about someone who is rich we think about someone who can
indulge in whatever he wants. Ben-Zoma by contrast is saying that
this is inaccurate, arguing instead that it is someone who finds his lot sufficient and is content with it as is.
When one imagines an honorable person one thinks of someone worthy of respect – i.e. in a position of responsibility or authority, or with a reputation for achievement. Such people are sometimes seen as paying little attention to those “lesser” than they. What does Ben-Zoma say? He says it is someone who honors all people – including those possibly his “inferiors”.
There is a passuk in Tehillim (Psalms 49) that tells us not to fear when a man becomes rich because when he dies he will not take any of it with him, nor will his glory follow him to the grave. What does the passuk mean when it tells us אל תירא (“be not afraid”)? One could understand it as saying no to be jealous, but why would someone fear another’s becoming wealthy?
The answer is that many do become afraid of other people’s success. We tend to view ourselves in comparison to others. Therefore if a contemporary is more successful than we are, we tend to assume that we must be doing something wrong. The passuk is not challenging the notion of using someone else’s success as a measure of our own success. The passuk reminds us that matter is temporary and in the final analysis means little. The passuk is advising us not to measure ourselves in contrast to others’ ascendancy to material wealth because materialistic yardsticks are counterfactual.
We as mortal beings have a tendency to view things from a very temporary and limited vantage point, all too often not seeing the big picture.
Istvan Banyai authored a wordless best seller book called Zoom. The book starts off with a scene, but with every page you turn you zoom a bit further out. With each zooming out you realize that the picture you just saw was merely a detail of the next picture. What made Istvan’s book a best-seller was Ben-Zoma’s age-old wisdom. Ben-Zoma takes this lesson a step further by guiding us to what constitutes the essence of life’s success. 1) One who is wise will seek wisdom from anyone. 2) One is truly strong only if one can exercise unmitigated self-control. 3) One can be truly rich only if one is content with one’s lot. 4) In order for someone to be truly honorable one must act with respect for all, as all of creation is worthy of some respect. Being respectful transforms someone into being respectable. Ben-Zoma attaches a passuk as a source for each of these perspectives. By doing so he is telling us that the only unlimited vantage point is Hashem’s. Fortunate are we to have Hashem’s point of view accessible to us through His Torah.