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Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from every man, as it says: “from all who taught me, I have gained understanding” (Tehillim 119:99).

Who is mighty? He who subdues his evil inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city” (Mishlei 16:32). Who is rich? He who is happy with his portion, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper” (Tehillim 128:2) “You shall be happy” in this world, “and you shall prosper” in the world to come.


Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings as it is said: “For I honor those that honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored” (Shmuel I 2:30), (Avot 4:19).

Each one of Masechet Avot’s perakim begins with a central teaching (See Maharal, Derech Chaim, Introduction to Avot 2) The fourth perek opens with Ben Zoma’s definition of four characters: the chacham (wise), the gibor (strong), the ashir (rich), and the mechubad (respected).


Not The Ultimate Values

The first three characters – chacham, gibor, and ashir – were already referenced by Yirmiyahu HaNavi (9:22), who discouraged taking pride in possessing these traits. Though society values them and (thus) people invest significant time and effort trying to attain them, they are not reflective of life’s true mission. Yirmiyahu recommends taking pride, instead, in knowing Hashem and living by His values, chesed, mishpat and tzedakah – kindness, justice and fairness. This is what Hashem values and, thus, what our lives ought to be about. Living this way is something to be proud of.


Still Valuable

Though these traits are not the ultimate goals, they are still somewhat valuable. In fact, even Hashem values them. The Gemara in Masechet Nedarim (38a) asserts that Hashem only “rests His presence upon” (meaning that he only offers prophecy through) someone who has these characteristics (see Bamidbar Rabbah 22:6 which explains that these characteristics are only significant when they are seen as coming from Hashem).

Like the Gemara in Nedarim, Ben Zoma attributes value to these traits. His goal is to help us define them properly. Ben Zoma also adds a fourth characteristic to the mix – “mechubad.” Most people’s ultimate goal is respect. Some hope to be respected because of their wisdom, others because of their strength, and still others because of their wealth. Ben Zoma recognizes people’s yearning for respect (as seen throughout Avot 4) and, therefore, seeks to define this trait as well.


Internal and External

Though Ben Zoma relates to each of the traits separately, his words about all four share a common goal: to correct our thinking about which traits depend upon our internal, personal perspective and which hinge upon things external to ourselves.

People measure ashirut by one’s money and possessions and gevurah by one’s ability to control other people or things. Ben Zoma disagrees, explaining that both traits are actually internal. The true gibor is the one who has the strength to control himself. (See Bereishit 4:7 where Hashem highlights self-control as the way to avoid sin. See also Kuzari 3:5 who defines a chasid as the one who is in control of himself and the Mishna Berurah 571:2 who speaks about the significance of self-control); the real ashir is the one satisfied with what he has (see Masechet Shabbat 25b which expressed a similar sentiment).

Why should we value the ability to control others? Even if that had value, what difference does that ability make if we cannot control ourselves? Finally, self-control is harder to achieve than the control of others. Self-control is both a true accomplishment and also the accomplishment that truly matters (See Chovat HaLevavot sha’ar chamishi, yichud hama’aseh 5 who describes controlling oneself as the ‘great war,’ as opposed to ‘physical wars as smaller ones.’ See also Or HaChayim Devarim 21:11).

True ashirut is also internal. What significance do material riches have if they do not make us happy? Many rich people spend their lives desperately trying to acquire more wealth. No matter how much they have, their jealousy of others keeps them from being satisfied with their lot. Being happy with our blessings from Hashem makes us truly rich. We live happily with the knowledge that we have what we are meant to have (see Rashi who explains the word ‘chelko’ in this way).

Ben Zoma has a similar approach to chochma and kavod, but in the reverse direction. People generally define a mechubad as someone respected by others. Ben Zoma defines the mechubad as one who respects others. The one who respects others is the one who should be shown respect and is inherently respectable.

Sadly, many people are “full of themselves” – they feel that they are “G-d’s gift to humanity.” In truth, what truly makes us special is the fact that we are created in Hashem’s image. This fact is, of course, shared by all of humanity. A true appreciation of ourselves should bring us to a similar appreciation of all other human beings. This appreciation makes us worthy of respect. (Masechet Yevamot 62b reminds us of the importance of this as Rebbi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim perished because they violated this principle.)

Understandably, Ben Zoma refers to the other people we are meant to respect as “b’riyot – creations.” It is the fact that all people are Hashem’s creations that makes them worthy of respect. It is also noteworthy that Ben Zoma derives the importance of showing respect to other people from a pasuk that describes showing respect to Hashem. When we show respect to Hashem’s creations, we show respect to Him.

Ben Zoma defines a chacham similarly. People generally assume that a chacham is intrinsically intelligent. Ben Zoma explains it otherwise: the chacham is the one who learns from others. No one knows it all. Hashem scatters wisdom among all of those He creates in His image. The more people we learn from, the smarter we become. The ultimate chacham is the one who learns from everyone. (Rashi, in Bereishit 1:26, explains that Hashem taught this lesson by example when he ‘consulted’ with the angels about whether to create man. This idea applies both to Torah scholarship, Eiruvin 19a, Berachot 63b and general knowledge, Orot HaKodesh 1:13.)


What We Accomplish

The Midrash Shmuel and Netivot Shalom highlight another thread common to Ben Zoma’s teachings. The blessings of wisdom, strength, and wealth are all G-d-given and thus not reasons for one to be prideful or shown respect. It is what we achieve on our own that is praiseworthy.

We should not be proud of our natural intelligence; we should be proud of the effort we invest in learning from others. We should not celebrate natural strength; we should celebrate the self-control we develop. We have no reason to show off the riches with which Hashem gifts us; we should be proud of the appreciation we foster for the source of what we have. We should not be proud of the respect others show us; we should be proud of our understanding of the basis and importance of showing respect to others.

May Ben Zoma’s words help us appreciate the true meaning of wisdom, strength, wealth, and honor, and may they inspire us to focus on the personal growth that helps us achieve their proper form.


Summarized by Rafi Davis.


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Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and Educational Director of World Mizrachi - RZA. He lives with his wife Shani and their six children in Alon Shvut, Israel.