Elul 18, 5772 * September 5, 2012
E T H I C S O F O U R F A T H E R S
Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As it is written: "From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials ("eidosecha") are my meditation."
- Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1
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It would seem that a wiser person is also a more critical person, since he has the insight to see his fellow for what he truly is. So why does Ben Zoma say ``Who is wise - One who learns from every man''? Perhaps to become wise, a person should learn from everyone; but the wiser he becomes, would he not find less value in those inferior to himself?
One possible answer is that the wise man gleans positive knowledge and instruction also from negative traits and deeds. Thus, Rabbi Zusya of Anipoli learned seven things from a thief: a) What he does, he keeps to himself. b) He is ready to take risks in order to achieve his goal. c) The smallest detail is of great importance to him. d) He invests great effort and toil in what he does. e) He is swift. f) He is confident and optimistic. g) If at first he fails, he is back time and again for another try.
Another, deeper perception of every man as one's teacher is to be found in the verse from Psalm 119 quoted by Ben Zoma: "From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials ("eidosecha") are my meditation." At first glance, only the first half of the verse pertains to our mishnah's point. What does the fact that "Your testimonials (i.e. the mitzvos) are my meditation" have to do with learning from every man?
Indeed, the Hebrew word "eidosecha", "Your testimonials," from the root "eid", "witness" or "testifier," usually refers to the Divine commandments, whose observance attests to G-d's sovereignty over the universe and His relationship with us. But there is also another significance to the term - that it refers to each and every one of us. "`You are My attesters ("eidy"),' says G-d" - every single individual, with the very fact of his or her being, bears testimony to the greatness of their Creator.
It is in this context that Ben Zoma quotes the entire verse. "From all my teachers I have grown wise," says King David, expressing the elementary lesson that to grow wise one must learn from every man. Furthermore, the wiser he became, the more teachers David had. Why? Because "Your testimonials are my meditation."
True, wisdom enables one to see past the veneer of conduct and grasp the inner motives and desires of men. But the truly wise individual looks even deeper, beyond personality and character, to perceive the quintessence of humanity: man as a testimonial to G-d, Who created him in His image.
Every human being expresses another of the infinite faces of the Creator, and thus serves as unique and unduplicated insight into the all-embracing, all-pervading source of all wisdom. It takes a truly wise man to look at his every fellow, including the externally corrupt and despicable individual, and perceive the testimony he bears about his Creator.
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Introductory reading to Ethics of the Fathers:
All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: ``And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.''
1. Rabbi Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. From where you came--from a putrid drop; where you are going--to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting--before the supreme king of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
2. Rabbi Chanina, deputy to the kohanim, would say: Pray for the integrity of the sovereignty; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive. Rabbi Chanina son of Tradyon would say: Two who sit and no words of Torah pass between them, this is a session of scorners, as is stated, ``And in a session of scorners he did not sit.'' But two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them, as is stated, ``Then the G-d-fearing conversed with one another, and G-d listened and heard; and it was inscribed before Him in a book of remembrance for those who fear G-d and give thought to His name.'' From this, I know only concerning two individuals; how do I know that even a single individual who sits and occupies himself with the Torah, G-d designates reward for him? From the verse, ``He sits alone in meditative stillness; indeed, he receives [reward] for it.''
3. Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten from the slaughter of the dead, as is stated, ``Indeed, all tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of the Omnipresent.'' But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G-d's table, as is stated, ``And he said to me: `This is the table that is before G-d.' ''
4. Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina'i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life.
5. Rabbi Nechunia the son of Hakanah would say: One who excepts upon himself the yoke of Torah is exempted from the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares ; but one who casts off the yoke of Torah is saddled with the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares.
6. Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania would say: Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them, as is stated: ``The Almighty stands in the community of G-d.'' And from where do we know that such is also the case with five? From the verse, ``He established his band on earth.'' And three? From the verse, ``He renders judgment in the midst of judges.'' And two? From the verse, ``Then the G-d-fearing conversed with one another, and G-d listened and heard.'' And from where do we know that such is the case even with a single individual? From the verse, ``Every place where I have My name mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you.''
7. Rabbi Elazar of Bartosa would say: Give Him what is His, for you, and whatever is yours, are His. As David says: ``For everything comes from You, and from Your own hand we have given to You.'' Rabbi Yaakov would say: One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, ``How beautiful is this tree!,'' ``How beautiful is this ploughed field!''---the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life.
8. Rabbi Dusta'i the son of Rabbi Yannai would say in the name of Rabbi Meir: Anyone who forgets even a single word of this learning, the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life. As is stated, ``Just be careful, and verily guard your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen.'' One might think that this applies also to one who [has forgotten because] his studies proved too difficult for him; but the verse goes on to tell us ``and lest they be removed from your heart, throughout the days of your life.'' Hence, one does not forfeit his life unless he deliberately removes them from his heart.
9. Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa would say: One whose fear of sin takes precedence to his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom takes precedence to his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure.
10. He would also say: One whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom does not endure. He would also say: One who is pleasing to his fellow men, is pleasing to G-d. But one who is not pleasing to his fellow men, is not pleasing to G-d. Rabbi Dosa the son of Hurkinas would say: Morning sleep, noontime wine, children's talk and sitting at the meeting places of the ignoramus, drive a person from the world.
11. Rabbi Elazar of Modi'in would say: One who profanes the kodoshim, degrades the Festivals, humiliates his friend in public, abrogates the covenant of our father Abraham, or who interprets the Torah contrary to its true intent---although he may possess Torah knowledge and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come.
12. Rabbi Ishmael would say: Be yielding to a leader, affable to the black-haired, and receive every man with joy.
13. Rabbi Akivah would say: Jesting and frivolity accustom a person to promiscuity. Tradition is a safety fence to Torah, tithing a safety fence to wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom is silence.
14. He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, ``For in the image of G-d, He made man.'' Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of G-d; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they are called children of G-d, as it is stated: ``You are children of the L-rd your G-d.'' Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious article; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious article, as it is stated: ``I have given you a good purchase; My Torah, do not forsake it.''
15. All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness, but in accordance with the amount of man's positive deeds.
16. He would also say: Everything is placed in pledge, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the storekeeper extends credit, the account-book lies open, the hand writes, and all who wish to borrow may come and borrow. The collection-officers make their rounds every day and exact payment from man, with his knowledge and without his knowledge. Their case is well founded, the judgment is a judgment of truth, and ultimately, all is prepared for the feast.
17. Rabbi Eliezer the son of Azariah would say: If there is no Torah, there is no common decency; if there is no common decency, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of G-d; if there is no fear of G-d, there is no wisdom. If there is no applied knowledge, there is no analytical knowledge; if there is no analytical knowledge, there is no applied knowledge. If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour.
He would also say: One whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, what is he comparable to? To a tree with many branches and few roots; comes a storm and uproots it, and turns it on its face. As is stated, ``He shall be as a lone tree in a wasteland, and shall not see when good comes; he shall dwell parched in the desert, a salt land, uninhabited.'' But one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree with many roots and few branches, whom all the storms in the world cannot budge from its place. As is stated: ``He shall be as a tree planted upon water, who spreads his roots by the river; who fears not when comes heat, whose leaf is ever lush; who worries not in a year of drought, and ceases not to yield fruit.''
18. Rabbi Eliezer [the son of] Chisma would say: the laws of kinin and the laws of menstrual periods---these, these are the meat of Halacha. The calculations of solar seasons and gematria are the condiments of wisdom.
1. Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated: ``From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.''
Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated, ``Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.''
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.
Who is honorable, one who honors his fellows. As is stated: ``For to those who honor me, I accord honor; those who scorn me shall be demeaned.''
2. Ben Azzai would say: Run to pursue a minor mitzvah, and flee from a transgression. For a mitzvah brings another mitzvah, and a transgression brings another transgression. For the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the reward of transgression is transgression.
3. He would also say: Do not scorn any man, and do not discount anything. For there is no man who has not his hour, and no thing that has not its place.
4. Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh would say: Be very, very humble, for the hope of mortal man is worms.
Rabbi Yochanan the son of Berokah would say: Whoever desecrates the Divine Name covertly, is punished in public. Regarding the desecration of the Name, the malicious and the merely negligent are one and the same.
5. Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabbi Yossei would say: One who learns Torah in order to teach, is given the opportunity to learn and teach. One who learns in order to do, is given the opportunity to learn, teach, observe and do.
Rabbi Tzaddok would say: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not act as a counselor-at-law. Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig. So would Hillel say: one who make personal use of the crown of Torah shall perish. Hence, one who benefits himself from the words of Torah, removes his life from the world.
6. Rabbi Yossei would say: Whoever honors the Torah, is himself honored by the people; whoever degrades the Torah, is himself degraded by the people.
7. His son, Rabbi Ishmael would say: One who refrains from serving as a judge avoids hatred, thievery and false oaths. One who frivolously hands down rulings is a fool, wicked and arrogant.
8. He would also say: Do not judge alone, for there is none qualified to judge alone, only the One. And do not say, ``You must accept my view,'' for this is their [the majority's] right, not yours.
9. Rabbi Jonathan would say: Whoever fulfills the Torah in poverty, will ultimately fulfill it in wealth; and whoever neglects the Torah in wealth, will ultimately neglect it in poverty.
10. Rabbi Meir would say: Engage minimally in business, and occupy yourself with Torah. Be humble before every man. If you neglect the Torah, there will be many more causes for neglect before you ; if you toil much in Torah, there is much reward to give to you.
11. Rabbi Eliezer the son of Yaakov would say: He who fulfills one mitzvah, acquires for himself one advocate; he who commits one transgression, acquires against himself one accuser. Repentance and good deeds are as a shield against retribution.
Rabbi Yochanan the Sandal-Maker would say: Every gathering that is for the sake of Heaven, will endure; that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure.
12. Rabbi Eliezer the son of Shamua would say: The dignity of your student should be as precious to you as your own; the dignity of your colleague, as your awe of your master; and your awe of your master as your awe of Heaven.
13. Rabbi Judah would say: Be careful with your studies, for an error of learning is tantamount to a willful transgression.
Rabbi Shimon would say: There are three crowns--the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty--but the crown of good name surmounts them all.
14. Rabbi Nehora'i would say: Exile yourself to a place of Torah; do not say that it will come after you, that your colleagues will help you retain it. Rely not on your own understanding.
15. Rabbi Yannai would say: We have no comprehension of the tranquility of the wicked, nor of the suffering of the righteous.
Rabbi Matya the son of Charash would say: Be first to greet every man. Be a tail to lions, rather than a head to foxes.
16. Rabbi Yaakov would say: This world is comparable to the antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the banquet hall.
17. He would also say: A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come. And a single moment of bliss in the World to Come is greater than all of the present world.
18. Rabbi Shimon the son of Elazar would say: Do not appease your friend at the height of his anger; do not comfort him while his dead still lies before him; do not ask him about his vow the moment he makes it ; and do not endeavor to see him at the time of his degradation.
19. Samuel the Small would say: ``When your enemy falls, do not rejoice; when he stumbles, let your heart not be gladdened. Lest G-d see, and it will displeasing in His eyes, and He will turn His wrath from him [to you]''
20. Elisha the son of Avuyah would say: One who learns Torah in his childhood, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on fresh paper. One who learns Torah in his old age, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on erased paper.
Rabbi Yossei the son of Judah of Kfar HaBavli would say: One who learns Torah from youngsters, whom is he comparable to? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks [unfermented] wine from the press. One who learns Torah from the old, whom is he comparable to? To one who eats ripened grapes and drinks aged wine.
Said Rabbi Meir: Look not at the vessel, but at what it contains. There are new vessels that are filled with old wine, and old vessels that do not even contain new wine.
21. Rabbi Elazar HaKapor would say: Envy, lust and honor drive a man from the world.
22. He would also say: Those who are born will die, and the dead will live. The living will be judged, to learn, to teach and to comprehend that He is G-d, He is the former, He is the creator, He is the comprehender, He is the judge, He is the witness, he is the plaintiff, and He will judge. Blessed is He, for before Him there is no wrong, no forgetting, no favoritism, and no taking of bribes; know, that everything is according to the reckoning. Let not your heart convince you that the grave is your escape; for against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will you live, against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give a judgement and accounting before the king, king of all kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Studied at the conclusion of each lesson of the Ethics:
Rabbi Chananiah the son of Akashiah would say: G-d desired to merit the people of Israel; therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance. As is stated, ``G-d desired, for sake of his righteousness, that Torah be magnified and made glorious.''
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Home »Unlabelled » ETHICS OF OUR FATHERS: Bearing Witness (Chapters 3&4)