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Foundation of Faith: Chapter 4, Verse 1

Excerpted from Foundation of Faith: A Tapestry of Insights and Illumination on Pirkei Avot based on the Thought and Writings of Rabbi Norman Lamm, The Gibber Edition, edited by Rabbi Mark Dratch, co-published with Ktav Publishing

Chapter 4, Verse 1

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? He who learns from every person. As is stated (Ps. 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.” Who is strong? He who controls his passions. As is stated (Pr. 16:32): “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? He who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated (Ps. 128:2): “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? He who honors his fellows. As is stated (I Sam. 2:30): “For to those who honor me, I accord honor; those who despise me shall be demeaned.”

Inspirational Judaism

The Mishnah gives us a series of definitions by the renowned Ben Zoma. However, surprisingly, the Gemara, Kiddushin 49b, gives us completely different answers, and does not even mention our Mishnah. The Talmud discusses the interesting question of the man who marries a woman conditionally. What is the law, the Gemara asks, if a man marries a woman “al tenai she’ani ḥakham, on condition that I am a wise man”? What is the definition of ḥakham so that we may decide whether or not a valid marriage has been contracted? The answer is that it is sufficient that he be kol shesho’alin oto devar ḥokhmah bekhol makom, one who can conduct himself intelligently in any field of discourse. Note that all that the Gemara requires is that he be bright; no mention is made of Ben Zoma’s definition of the wise man as one who retains the capacity to learn from everyone. The next case is the one who marries a woman al menat she’ani gibbor, on condition that I am a strong man. Here the definition is kol sheḥaveirav mityarin mimenu mipnei gevurato, he must be such that his friends fear him because of his power and influence. Again, there is no mention of the Mishnah’s definition of strength interpreted as self-control. Finally, if a man marries a woman al menat she’ani ashir, on condition that I am rich, the marriage is valid if he is one of those kol shebenei iro mekhabdin oto mipnei oshro, whose townsfolk respect him because of his wealth – and not merely one who is satisfied with what he has.

How do we account for these changing definitions? The answer that R. Barukh HaLevi Epstein, the renowned author of Torah Temimah, gives is that the Gemara speaks of the act of marriage, an act which is essentially a kinyan, a contract freely arrived at by two people who must mutually agree upon the proposal. In such a case, we must estimate the understanding that the man and woman probably had at the time they came to an agreement. As a contract, we must consider only their interpretation, their understanding, and their values. The Mishnah gives us the values of Ben Zoma. He gave us the standards that became the ideal of Judaism. The Gemara’s criterion goes by the count of most people; the Mishnah’s criterion goes by the people who count most.

It is also possible to suggest that the Talmud offers the halakhic, legal, answer, while the Mishneh in Avot offers an aggadic, inspirational and aspirational, answer. The Rav, R. Joseph Soloveitchik, zt”l, observed that Halakhah alone is minimal Judaism, the quintessential but basic requirements of Jewish life. Avot inspires us and challenges us to expand our characters, our vision, and our spiritual capacities.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his God in Search of Man (p. 336), wrote,

Halacha represents the strength to shape one’s life according to a fixed pattern; it is a form-giving force. Agada is the expression of man’s ceaseless striving which often defies all limitations. Halacha is the rationalization and schematization of living; it defines, specifies, sets measure and limit, placing life into an exact system. Agada deals with man’s ineffable relations to God, to other men, and to the world. Halacha deals with details, with each commandment separately; agada deals with the whole of life, with the totality of religious life. Halacha deals with the law; agada with the meaning of the law. Halacha deals with subjects that can be expressed literally; agada introduces us to a realm which lies beyond the range of expression. Halacha teaches us how to perform common acts; agada tells us how to participate in the eternal drama. Halacha gives us knowledge; agada gives us aspiration.

Kibbush HaYetzer

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that the Mishnah’s statement, “Who is strong? He who controls his passions” is a minimalist, not a maximalist position. The higher achievement is not the suppression (kibbush) but the sanctification (kiddush) of the yetzer.