Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My Favorite Mishna

In honor of my cousin Deb Tannenbaum I'm going to post my most recent (and last) newsletter column. We own a graphic she made that includes this text. 

Between Pesah and Shavuot it is customary to we learn Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). This is a collection of rabbinic aphorisms from the early rabbinic period, redacted in about 220 CE. Unlike other sections of Mishna, of which is is part, Avot does not contain halakhic (Jewish legal) material; instead, it focuses on ethical and spiritual teachings that the rabbis wished to include in this basis of post-biblical Jewish life.

There is a lot of great stuff in Pirke Avot, from Hillel's famous teaching: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (1:14) to Tarfon's guidance, so important to remember in social justice work: “You are not obliged to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it (2:21).

But the perek (verse) I want to focus on today is Chapter 4, mishna 1. Leaving out the proof texts for each sentence for the sake of space, it goes like this:

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? The one who learns from every person. Who is mighty? The one who conquers his passions. Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with her portion. Who is honored? The one who honors others.

Let's take these one by one. First, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” Rashi says that this wise person “diligently seeks the company of Torah scholars” and is not self-conscious of what she does or doesn't know. Bartenura comments that because he doesn't hesitate to learn from those who are less accomplished than he, it proves that his thirst for knowledge is genuine and not the result of vanity or self-importance. Of course, sometimes the lesson might be in the negative – you might learn from someone how not to behave.

Second, “Who is mighty? The one who conquers his passions.” The literal translation for “passions” is “inclinations,” so we might be tempted to associate this with a general warning against following the so-called “evil inclination,” (yetzer ha-rah), the inclination to do evil. However, the prooftext has a specific yetzer in mind: “The one who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and the one who rules his spirit than one who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32) So controlling one's anger is an act of heroism! Certainly it feels like that sometimes. We can also remember that the reason that Moses was not allowed entry into the Land of Israel was because of his anger, and we can see how spiritually damaging anger really is.

The third sentence of our mishna says, “Who is wealth? The one who is satisfied with her portion. The commentary of Me'am Lo'ez says that “a person who has a good heart, and rejoices with the lot that God has given her, want[s] nothing more than than he has... lives happily her whole life, and is able to serve God properly.” We live in a society based upon envy and competition, where someone is always making more money than we do, or living in a better house, driving a better car, etc. But the wisdom of this text is that as long as we are wise enough to realize that we have enough, we can be happy.

And finally, “Who is honored? The one who honors others.” The prooftext begins with a quote by God from 1 Samuel: “...for them that honor Me I will honor” (2:30). If God Godself can honor us - by making us in God's image, by providing us the means to be happy and to do good work in the world – than surely we can honor each other, as we are all created b'tzelem Elohim - in the image of God.

Do you see why I love this text so much? What is the way to a good life? Having the humility to learn from everyone (even if the lessons aren't always positive ones), controlling one's anger, being satisfied with what one has, and meeting people as if they were (as they are) created in the Divine Image.

Good self-help advice for us all, courtesy of the ancient rabbis.

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