Chapter 4, Mishna 1(a)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Ben (the son of) Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all
as it is said: 'From all those who taught me I gained understanding'
(Psalms 119:99). Who is strong? He who conquers his evil inclination, as
it is said: 'Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who
rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city' (Proverbs 16:32). Who is
rich? He who is satisfied with his lot, as it is said: 'When you eat the
toil of your hands you are fortunate and it is good for you' (Psalms
128:2). 'You are fortunate' -- in this world; 'and it is good for you' --
in the World to Come. Who is honored? He who honors others, as it is
said: 'For those who honor Me will I honor, and those who scorn Me will be
degraded' (I Samuel 2:30)."
This week's mishna contains such sound words of wisdom, profound in their
simplicity, that it hardly needs Dovid Rosenfeld's embellishments. But I
have to earn my weekly paycheck, so here goes... (Actually, I do this for
free. :-) (But I try to be rich according to our Mishna's definition (sigh).)
The author of our mishna is Shimon ben Zoma. He is referred to by his
father's name alone because he died at an early age or without having
received rabbinical ordination (Rashi, see also Talmud Chagigah 14b).
"Who is wise? He who learns from all people:" At its simplest level, the
message is that one who seeks wisdom wherever it may be found is the one
most likely to acquire it. He or she is willing to ask anyone and everyone.
He is not so conscious of his own reputation as to refuse to "lower" himself
to seek knowledge from someone not as important or credentialed as he. The
Talmud writes that the Torah student who humiliates himself before others in
order to understand the Torah (by asking his rabbi "stupid" questions and
the like) will eventually be elevated on account of his Torah knowledge
(As an Internet teacher and Ask the Rabbi responder, I know how many people
begin their e-mails with: "I'm sure this is a stupid question, but..." or "I
really should know this already, but..." Those are the ones who will not so
long be "stupid". It's the ones too ashamed to admit their ignorance who
will be forced to wallow in it.)
The commentator Rabbeinu Yonah writes further that when a person inquires
wisdom of everyone, it indicates that he or she has a love of knowledge. His
thirst will take him to every person and every place; it will not be
quenched until he has drunk his fill. Such a person may be considered wise
even before he has studied, since his desire will soon lead him on the
straight path to greatness.
There is a deeper insight into ben Zoma's words. Why is learning from
*everyone* so crucial for accomplishment in Torah? Isn't it true that some
people just don't know as much as others? Should we really be spending time
trying to glean bits of information from the unlearned when we would make
much better use of our time studying ourselves or from our teachers?
The answer lies in the true understanding of the Torah's definition of
wisdom. When G-d commanded us to study His Torah, it was not just a matter
of memorizing dry facts and information. That could be gained from texts and
book knowledge alone. We would never need to bother interacting with anyone
else (thereby interrupting our own study time).
Rather, Torah study is the understanding of the application of the Torah's
principles to real people and real life situations -- how do the Torah's
eternal truths apply to the human condition. G-d's wisdom is eternal, yet no
two people are precisely alike and relate to the Torah in precisely the same
manner. Every one of us has his own perspective, his own life story, and his
own unique personality. Each of us will see a slightly different message in
the Torah, and will have his or her own fresh insights into its beauty and
Therefore, the Torah scholar cannot really understand the Torah if he does
not comprehend what it means to other human beings. By my very nature, I
cannot understand the Torah in every sense it has to convey. I am bound by
my own perspective, my own background, my own intellectual capacities, and
my own way of thinking. And the Torah is far too profound and
all-encompassing to be fully fathomed by any single individual, no matter
how wise. I must therefore branch out, attempting to understand what the
Torah means to my fellow -- what are the other equally-valid methods of
relating to truth. I must grow out of my own shell. When I realize that
truth is far more composite and multifaceted than it appears to me -- that
black-and-white to me may be shades-of-gray to my fellow -- I am ready to
truly become wise.
There is a Midrash which states that there is one letter in the Torah for
every single Jew. Every one of us has his own unique understanding of the
Torah and his own angle on truth. No one has the monopoly on the word of
G-d. And only when the student of the Talmud is prepared to grow out of his
own limited perspective and view the Big Picture has he truly embarked on
the path to Wisdom.
"Who is strong? He who conquers his evil inclination:" Our mishna teaches us
that strength should not be measured in physical might and fighting ability,
but in restraint and the controlling of one's passions. Rabbeinu Yonah
observes that ben Zoma -- as seen from the verse he quotes -- does not even
entertain that physical strength might be the determinant of a man's might.
Human beings rate pretty low as far as that is concerned. Being one of the
weakest, slowest (relative to our size), most delicate (in terms of what our
stomachs can take, extreme temperature endurance, etc.), longest to mature
of the animal kingdom, we have very little to brag about. G-d did not seem
to invent us as His wondrous masterpieces of grace, strength or endurance.
If we see ourselves as nothing more than physical specimens -- if our
self-image is based on our macho -- we are trading in the far higher goals
G-d has in mind for us for something which just does not fit the spec's.
The quoted verse does, however, contrast one who is slow to anger to a
warrior. (R. Yonah understands the "strong man" of the quoted verse to mean
a soldier.) Warriors at least exhibit some level of bravery and
self-discipline. A soldier who can survive basic training and endure harsh
battle conditions or a commander who can orchestrate a military campaign
demonstrate true valor -- of character as well as of body.
(One cannot help but notice the high proportion of presidents and national
leaders who preceded their political careers with successful military
careers. My sense is that this is only in part due to the heroics associated
with military distinction. The voting public may also have a sense that
someone who has the necessary self-discipline and strength of character to
run a battalion may just have the super-discipline required to run a country.)
To this ben Zoma states that nothing matches willpower. True strength is
that of the spirit; that of the body is different in kind. "Passive"
behavior -- not losing one's cool when the kids are infuriating, holding
oneself back when insulted, resisting temptation -- may appear more as doing
"nothing" than acting with strength. (What could be more "manly" than
banging on the table, slamming the door, and yelling at the top of your
lungs?) But as our Sages correctly observe, it often takes far greater
strength to do nothing than to react and to overreact. Strength is
controlling the animal that lurks within. Rashness, violence, thinking with
one's muscles -- all of these are forms of losing one's control and one's
humanity, and in the final analysis, are signs of weakness.
One final interesting observation is the universality of this law. As we
know, there are Seven Noahide Laws -- seven fundamental laws which G-d
commanded upon all mankind (see
http://www.aish.com/jl/jnj/nj/The-7-Noachide-Laws.html). Possibly, six of
them are ones we'd "expect" to see -- do not kill, steal, commit adultery,
etc. One, however, is a little off the beaten track -- not to eat a limb
severed from a living animal. Somehow, that does not strike us as one of the
fundamental tenets of human morality. What is so crucial about it? Why did
G-d deem it so far-reaching as to command its observance on the entire world?
I once heard R. Noach Orlowek of Jerusalem explain as follows. What is the
theme of this commandment? In a word, self-restraint. Don't just take
whatever you want whenever you want it. You want to eat meat? *Raw* meat?
Immediately?! At least wait until the animal is dead. This is not a matter
of religious ritual or living ascetically. That was not commanded on all
mankind. But one thing was: Don't be an animal. This is universal; it is a
simple matter of and fact of our humanity. A person cannot live, nor can
society function, if people do nothing more than satisfy their desires --
whenever they want, wherever they want. The Seven Laws do not tell us we
must be Jews, but they do tell us we must be humans. Really not so much to
ask of us, but above all else this is what distinguishes us -- what crowns
us -- as G-d's masterful creations.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.