Monday, May 03, 2010

Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers - Chapter 4, II

Pirkei Avot 4:1

בן זומא אומר איזה הוא חכם הלמד מכל אדם שנאמר מכל מלמדיי השכלתי (תהלים קיט צט) איזה הוא גיבור הכובש את יצרו שנאמר טוב ארך אפיים מגיבור (משלי טז לב) איזה הוא עשיר השמח בחלקו שנאמר יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך (תהלים קכח ב) אשריך בעולם הזה וטוב לך לעולם הבא איזה הוא מכובד המכבד את הברייות שנאמר כי מכבדיי אכבד ובוזיי ייקלו (שמואל א ב ל). סוף

Ben Zoma used to say, who is wise? He who learns from all men, as is said in Psalms CXIX:99, "From all my teachers I have gained wisdom." Who is strong? He who controls his passions, as is said in the Book of Proverbs XVI:32, "better is the slow to anger than he mighty, and the one who rules his spirit than he who captures a city." Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as is said in Psalms CXXVIII:2, "For thou shalt eat the labor of thy hands; happy shalt though be, and it shall be well with thee in this world and in the world to come." Who is honored? He who honors his fellow men, as is said in I Samuel II:30, "For I honor those who honor Me, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed."

- I find it interesting, and telling, how Pirkei Avot dictates we define someone who is smart, strong, rich or honored. Compare how 'we' define the aforementioned in the 'Western world,' and we see one of areas where the Western world and Jewish world constantly clash.

- Surely if one can learn from 'all,' one should be able to learn from a baby too ... but what? One of the things Nissim has taught me is one should do things with excitement. Whenever he gets up, he doesn't lay back down and relax. He wants to start his day an enthusiastic burst of energy. Babies look forward to each morning - a new discovery awaits - while those later on in life sadly lack that youthful passion. If I can learn such a valuable lesson from my 18 month old son, I'm sure I can learn something from everyone.

- Slightly related to our region and the difficulties in making peace, but perhaps he who is strong is one who 'represses the hatred we feel towards an enemy and makes a friend of him or her,' (taken from Rabbi Meir Matzliah Melamed's Pirkei Avot commentary).

- "Self control therefore needs the incredible strength of restraint. It requires holding back for just a few seconds between the things that happen to us and our response, creating a little space to think and process the point of view of the divine voice. It is what Stephen Covey calls the 'pause button between the stimulus and the response.'

We need to train ourselves not to act quickly and instinctively. We need to use the unique ability of the human being to stop and ask ourselves the question: is this wrong or right? It takes amazing strength to wait a few seconds, but those few seconds can be the difference between an animalistic act and a divine one." (How Strong are You? by Rabbi Michoel Gourarie).

- Ah yes, the 'who is rich' statement. Something that my Nonnou lived by, something I would love to master. I think that being 'happy with your lot' is allowing yourself the balance of being grateful for what you've been granted and striving to better your life ... for the right reason. We're a greedy species - and we're always liable to be jealous & ambitious (for the wrong reason), but if the striving is done for the right reason (I think the 'right reason' changes for each individual), it should allow us to handle & hopefully suppress the "look what s/he's got" mentality and fear that we'll not be able to sustain ourselves if what we think we need isn't granted to us.

- The part about honor is perhaps best summed up by Cuban poet Jose Marti, "Honrar, honra, "To honor, brings honor" (Rabbi Melamed).

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