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
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 Chagiga 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 (Brachos 63b).
(As an Internet teacher, I know how many people begin their e-mails
with: "I'm sure this is a stupid question, but..." or "I'm sure I 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
direct path towards scholarship.
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
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
at its highest level 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 insight into its beauty and relevance.
Therefore, the Torah scholar cannot really understand the Torah if
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 of Wisdom.
"Who is strong? He who conquers his evil inclination:" Our mishna tells 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's 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 --
such individuals demonstrate true valor -- of character as well as of
(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 Noachide Laws -- seven fundamental laws which G-d
commanded upon all mankind. 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? You want to
eat raw meat? Immediately? At least wait until the animal is dead.
is not a matter of religious ritual or living ascetically. That was not
commanded on all of mankind. But one thing was: don't be an animal. This
is universal; it is a simple matter of and a fact of our humanity. A
person cannot live, nor can society function, if people do nothing more
than satisfy their desires -- whenever they want and 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 creations.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.