he qualities of the sages are modesty, meek-ness, eagerness, courage, bearing wrongs done to them, and being endeared to everyone; submission to the members of their household, fear of sin, and judging everyone according to his deeds.
In traditional Judaism, tzni'ut, modesty, usually refers to the way one dresses or relates to the opposite sex. In the study of derek eretz, however, modesty means humility. The rabbis teach that a man who thinks he can live without others is mistaken; one who thinks others can't live without him is even more deluded.
Humility creates in us the capacity to truly love. It is one of the desired character traits of the Jewish People (Yevamot 79a).
Moses is referred to as "exceedingly humble, more than any man in the world" (Num.12:3). Humility is a sign of Godly strength and purpose, not weakness. "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (Proverbs 3:34). Humility allows us to understand that we are all connected with a transcendent unity. We experience this connection with the universe, or with the Divine, by becoming egoless.
Ego separates us from God and our fellows. If we resent someone, chances are that we see in him a defect of character that we possess. We prefer to shun him or to hold a grudge than to work on ridding ourselves of that defect.
"I stood between God and you" (Deuteronomy 5:5). Moses tells Israel that he was an intermediary between the Israelites and God at Sinai. Anochi is the Hebrew word used for 'I'. If we look at the verse literally, 'I' (ego) forms a barrier between God and ourselves.
While pretending he was Esau, Jacob said to Isaac: "It is I, Esau your firstborn" (Genesis 27:19). Anochi was also used here. The sages teach that wanting to be the big man, wanting to be an 'I,' is a trait of Esau. Esau is not one of our seven shepherds, ushpizin, who visits us in our sukkot. Jacob's humility was better expressed in his statement "I am too small [undeserving] of all the kindnesses You have done for me" (Genesis 32:11).
Although God wants us to earn self-esteem by doing His will, God does not appreciate false humility, self-anointment, or vanity. "A vain person is one I cannot bear" (Psalms 101:5). Dr. Robert Smith (20th century, United States) wrote:
Humility is having perpetual quietness of heart. It is to have no trouble. It is never to be fretted or vexed, irritable or sore; to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised, it is to have a blessed home in myself where I can go in and shut the door and pray to God in secret and be at peace, as in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and about is seeming trouble.
Meekness, the second middah, trait, discussed in Verse 1, is often used pejoratively in literature: "Exist unthinkingly like a slave, like a working animal"—Iris Murdoch; "Like an ox, his head bent meekly, he waited for the blow of the axe which was raised over him"—Leo Tolstoy; "Like a victim: meek, like a sacrifice"—Margaret Drabble. Based on its common associations, who would want the trait of meekness?
The rabbis do not ask us to be like unthinking, obse-quious farm animals, ready for sacrifice or victimization. True meekness seems to have been lost in our aggressive, self-centered culture. Because people associate it with weakness, most today do not admire others for being meek. Yet it is a quality of character very noticeable in our greatest sages, zekher tzadik livrakha—may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing (ZT"L). It is a trait we need to develop.
Meekness, anav in Hebrew, means subdued in mind (gentle) or circumstances (needy, especially saintly): humble, lowly, meek, poor. In Talmudic terms, to be meek is to be egoless, loving, kind, forgiving, and gentle—the opposite of flamboyant or charismatic. The best of our sages could not have attracted a TV audience with televangelism.
To be meek is to understand that the spark of the Divine, the yetzer tov, is within us, and to allow it to be expressed. True love of God and our fellows softens our stiff-necked rebellion and our hearts, so that we become receptive to the Creator and aware of His image in us. Therefore, meekness is also defined as being malleable, receptive, and teachable.
Meekness enables a person to bear patiently life's insults and the injuries he receives at the hands of others. It makes him ready to accept that, as the Talmud teaches, "A wise person is one who can learn from anyone." It allows him to endure provocation without being inflamed by it.
We find an example of this in the story of R'Hillel, whose students place a bet to see if they can get him to lose his temper. They taunt him with silly questions. He demonstrates meekness by remaining cool while others become heated.
Meek people seek no private revenge; they leave that to God's sense of justice while they try to remain true in their calling and meet God's standards. The spirit of meekness enables its possessor to squeeze great enjoyment from his earthly portion, be it small or great. Delivered from a greedy and grasping disposition, he is satisfied with what he has. Serenity of mind, shalom, is one of the fruits of meekness.
This misunderstood virtue is the antidote to most of the nervous anxiety that intensifies the day-to-day stresses of modern life. God commands us to "Seek the Lord, all you meek of the Earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek meekness" (Zephaniah 2:3). "The meek shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek Him will praise the Lord. Let your heart live forever!" (Psalms 22:26). "The Lord lifts up the meek; He casts the wicked down to the ground" (Psalms 147:6). "The meek also shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 29:19). "But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace" (Psalms 37:11).
We are to be ma'abir 'al middotaw, of a forgiving, yielding disposition (Bava Kama 99b).
Eagerness, zerizut, means enthusiasm or zeal, the desire to move forward. Its English root comes from the Latin acer, for sharp or biting. The Talmud refers often to sharpness as it relates to the eagerness to do mitzvot, the commandments, and to study Torah. "The words of Torah shall be sharp in your mouth so that if someone asks you something, you shall not fumble and then tell it to him, rather you shall tell it to him immediately" (Kiddushin 30a).
Pirkei Avot 5:20 quotes Rabbi Ben Teima: "Be brazen as a leopard, light as an eagle, quick as a gazelle, and strong as a lion in performing the will of your Father in Heaven." Eagerness comprises the middot of boldness (leopard), speed and alacrity (eagle and gazelle), and strength (lion).
In the 15th century mussar classic, Orchot Tzaddikim, Ways of the Righteous (originally entitled Sefer ha-Middot, Book of Traits) author Yom-Tov ben Solomon Lipmann-Muhlhausen (d. ca. 1425, Germany) devotes an entire chapter to the trait of zerizut, stating that it is the foundation of all other traits.
We cannot do acts of ahavath chesed, loving kindness, if we don't have the eagerness, the zest, to get out of our houses and do these acts. Yet zerizut also depends on another trait we today refer to as 'mindfulness.' Orchot Tzaddikim says: "Zerizut depends upon the state of a person's heart. When a person frees his heart of all other thoughts that reside in it, and seizes upon one thought, then he will be a zeriz, one without doubt."
When we follow our own will instead of single-mindedly seeking to follow God's will, we are not integrated. When we don't have integration, shlema, we do not have shalom, serenity. We are in conflict with ourselves, and find ourselves in conflict with others. A life of spiritual disconnection is what the rabbis call pizzur ha nefesh, the scattered soul.
We may rationalize about our laziness or procrastination rather than do what is right and just in God's eyes. "A lazy person considers himself to be wiser than seven sages" (Proverbs 26:16). Jewish spiritual renewal is for those who want it, not for those who need it. Many need it, but do not yet wish to transform.
Rav Yosef Karo (1488 Spain–1575 Safed), in his intro-duction to the Shulkhan Aruch, The Set Table, writes only about the strength of a lion which awakens us to do God's will. Where are the leopard, eagle, and gazelle?
The Taz, also known as Rav David Halevi Segal (1586–1667, Poland), wrote a critique of Karo, entitled Turei Zahav, Rows of Gold. Segal observes that the strength of a lion is the most desirable characteristic when in combat with the yetzer ha ra, the evil inclination. Thus, he explains, Rav Yosef Karo left out the other three traits to emphasize the trait of spiritual eagerness.
Eagerness, in Derek Eretz, leads one to approach life with the perspective Shiviti Hashem le-negdi tamid, "I place Ha Shem before me always" (Ps. 16:8).
"R' 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" (Pirkei Avot 4:2).
Courage is the opposite of giving in to fear. To overcome our fears, we must recognize that we only go around once in life. This is not an audition or a dress rehearsal; this is the big show. If we let our fears get the best of us, we are going to bomb, but if we triumph over those fears, we will bring the house down.
Our sages tell us to list all of the fears that have held us back throughout our lives. When we do, we will probably find that we have many fears in common with other people. We fear living. We fear dying. We might fear failure, success, not being loved or accepted, or not being good enough. Is there anything else we can think of? We are advised to include all of our fears—those we have now, and those we have had in the past. We are taught to take our time and to be rigorously honest.
When we review the list we will probably notice that most of our fears are irrationally based. Most fears are of events over which we have no control. Worse yet, many of them, like the fear of not having enough money, will lead to the chet, the sin, of coveting. Coveting inevitably leads to resentment.
To hold a grudge is a sin, as we may further sin by acting against those we envy. Fear is a process of the mind that can have ruinous consequences and drive us to hurt others.
Although many of our fears are irrational, there may be a few that have a rational etiology. For example, we might fear poverty, because our parents, who lived through the Great Depression, were always talking about it. Some people develop a fear of the opposite sex because at some point they were made to feel sexually inadequate. Others fear, in the depths of their hearts, that they are just not good enough, which leads to a fear of other people whom they perceive to be superior. Jealousy ensues, as does the desire to undermine, gossip, or otherwise lash out.
We are asked to determine the reasons for each fear. Where did it come from? Did somebody teach it to us? Is it the result of a traumatic experience? We skip no fear. We skip no reason. If, while doing this, we recall another fear, we add it to our original list.
We are asked to think about the behaviors that each fear causes. For example, if we have a fear of poverty, we might hoard our cash, avoid making charitable donations, shoplift, or pad our expense accounts. Do not be ashamed; none of is a perfect angel. Again, we need to be rigorously honest.
Next, the sages teach us, for each of our fears, we ask ourselves this question: 'If I trusted in, had faith in, had experience with, and believed in God, could I let go of these fears and the behaviors that stem from them?' Via mussar, ethical and spiritual transformation, we learn that the answer is yes.
When we learn to stay in conscious contact with God, our fears, covetous thoughts, and all other fear by-products become objectionable to us. We know that we can ask God to remove our fears and to end the destructive behavior they cause. He will, but we will be the ones doing the work.
There were seven clouds, four on the four sides of them, one above them, one beneath them, one before them to prepare the road before them, raising the depressions and lowering the elevations to make for them a plain, as it says: 'Every valley should be lifted up and every hill and mountain shall be made low and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places a plain.'
The sages teach that God will always raise valleys and flatten mountains during times of trouble, and that belief in God gives us a life free of fears and full of courage to do "what is right and just in God's eyes" (Deut. 13:18).
We learn in the Talmud that because of their experience with God, our sages gained the courage to stand up to tyranny, for Judaism, and for their people. We see the same in the TaNaK with Moses, David, Esther, Job, and most central figures. "Who can protest and does not, is an accomplice in the act" (Shabbat 54b). By wearing the armor of Ha Shem, we rarely lack courage, nor give in to fears. We truly cannot "stand idly by while our neighbor's blood is shed" (Lev.19:16).
The opening prophecy that God communicates to Joshua after the death of Moses is: "Only be strong [hazak] and be very courageous [ematz] to observe [lishmor], to act [la'asot] according to all the Torah which Moses My servant has commanded you; do not depart from it to the right or to the left, so that you will prosper wherever you may go" (Joshua 1:7).
Our sages explain that the heartening hazak (be strong) refers to Torah learning, while the encouraging ematz (be courageous) indicates the practice of good deeds (Berachot 32b).
Our sages offer the following verse as another source of courage: "Be strong, and let us strengthen ourselves [venithazak] on behalf of our people and on behalf of the cities of our Lord, and God will do that which seems good in His eyes" (II Samuel 10:12). The verse is taken from General Yoav's tactical discussion with his brother and fellow general, Avishai, during the battle against Ammon and Aram.
Yoav offers encouragement before the two generals depart with their separate armies. "Hope to God, be strong, and He will give your heart courage [veya'ametz], and hope to God" (Psalms 27:14). These words are read at the conclusion of every book of Torah by the entire congregation.
To develop the middah of courage, it is important to surround ourselves with spiritual and ethical people from whom we gain encouragement and inspiration. There will be times when we need encouraging words, and times when we need to offer them.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav once said, "If you won't be better tomorrow than you were today, then what need do you have for tomorrow?" We can always improve and grow ethically and spiritually.
Bearing wrongs done to them
Often we hear that Judaism is a legalistic religion, as opposed to a way of love. Although Judaism certainly has its rules, which stem from its Hebraic roots, all of Torah and Talmud are meant to teach loving kindness. The Talmud Tractate Berachot clearly states that any ritual commandment must be waived to preserve the honor and well-being of another.
Rabbi Akiva says that the two most important command-ments are love of one's fellow and love of God. Rabbi Hillel defines both: "What is hateful unto you, do not do to your fellows."
The Midrash teaches that all Jews are ma'aminim b'nei ma'aminim, believers who are descendants of believers, but more important than faith itself are the actions which point to one's faith. Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740–1810, Poland) said, "Whether a man really loves the Divine can be determined by the love he bears toward his fellow men."
How can we love the neighbor who mows his lawn at 6 AM on Sunday? Leviticus 19:17–18 tells us not to hate, not to revenge, not to resent, but to love, and to gently instruct someone who is on the wrong path. The verse ends with "I am God." Only via God's love do we become able to love those who annoy us.
The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Israel: My beloved children! Is there anything I lack that I should have to ask of you? All I ask of you is that you love one another, that you honor one another, that you respect one another. In this way, no sin, robbery, or base deed will be found among you, so that you will remain undefiled forever. Thus it is written, "He has told you, O man, what is good, and what Ha Shem seeks of you—only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Ha Shem, your God" (Mic. 6:8).
—Midrash D'Vrei Eliyahu Rabbah
Not only did Yosef not repay his brothers in kind [for having sold him], but he acted toward them with kindness and truth. Such is always the way of the righteous. Therefore, the Holy One, Blessed is He, forever watches over them, in this world and in the next.
—Kabbalah from the Zohar Genesis
on Parasha Mikeitz 201b
The Torah tells us: "You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge; you shall love your fellow as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). If someone behaves improperly towards us, we must erase the matter from our hearts, and behave correctly in every way with that person, just as we would with anyone else, as if nothing negative had ever come between us.
Judaism requires no less from us. To seek revenge or to carry a grudge is not Judaic, and shows we are spiritually disconnected. Why let someone who is not paying rent live in our heads? Why hold a grudge when it only harms us, like an acid eating away at its container?
I have been saying the bedtime Shema for years, and it has helped to change me. The first paragraph goes:
Master of the universe, I hereby forgive any-one who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me—whether against my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine; whether he did so accidentally, will-fully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration. May no man be punished because of me. May it will be Your will, Ha Shem, my God and the God of my forefathers, that I may sin no more. Whatever sins I have done before You, may You blot out in Your abundant mercies, but not through suffering or bad illnesses. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, Ha Shem, my Rock and my Redeemer.
The last line is from the TaNaK, Psalms 19:15. Only in the third paragraph do we say the actual Shema, the acknowledgment that God is One. The man-to-man mitzvot take precedence over the man-to-God mitzvot.
Being endeared to everyone
What do the authors of Derek Eretz Zuta wish to convey when they tell us to be endeared to everyone? Well, first of all, we do not need to parse the word 'everyone.' It means what it says: every human being we encounter.
Being endeared means that we find in every person something dear, something valuable. "Every person contains something precious that cannot be found in anyone else," observed Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz. That 'something precious,' is what we find endearing. If we do not see it right away, our job is to mine for it, as we would for a precious gemstone.
When we are spiritually connected, we know that we are all made from Divine sparks. We know we are inter-connected. We understand that when we hurt another person, we also hurt ourselves. All of Torah, including Talmud, is meant to bring us to ahavath chesed, and to help us to repair ourselves and our world. For this reason, derek eretz, the correct way to treat others, precedes Torah's rituals.
"Two eyes were given to man: one with which to see his fellow man's virtues, and another with which to see his own faults," taught Rebbe Meir of Premishlan. We must see and point out the beauty in every person instead of his imperfections. Faults we are to find only within ourselves. We are to take our own daily chesbon ha nefesh, an inventory of our soul. Never are we to take another's inventory.
Our society today is moving at breakneck speed. A modern halakhic rabbi, adherent to Jewish law, has posited that just as we must answer all greetings with a smile, so too must we answer all e-mails. With the proliferation of social networks, modern derek eretz advises us that when somebody asks us to 'friend' him, we should say yes. Imagine the hurt feelings of one ignored. Why lose an opportunity to shine love and happiness into someone's life?
It's impossible for a physical being to be devoid of faults; everyone has his share. We must not flee or hide from them, nor resign ourselves to them, but face up to them, and systematically chase them away. It's our responsibility to recognize who we are, and to gradually clean up our acts. What we see in the mirror may seem ugly at first, but our Divine path is to look.
Few rules are mentioned in Derek Eretz about human relationships with the Divine. The talmidim, disciples, of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi once asked him: "Which is greater—to love God, or to love one's fellow?" Replied the Rebbe: "The love of God and the love of a fellow are equally ingrained in the soul. God loves every person. So to love a fellow is to love what God loves, which is greater than to love Him Himself."
Remember, the rabbis call us hypocrites and liars if we say the V'Ahavtah prayer to announce our love for God, Whom we cannot see, but then we ignore or harm another person, the image of God, whom we can see.
Submission to the members of their household
At first glance, this quality of the sages appears absurd, especially to those of us with teenaged children. The sages say: "Whoever acquires a servant, it is as if he has acquired a master!" They go on to state that if the master has a pillow and the servant does not, the master must give the servant his pillow. In the Gemara, the rabbis debate the issue and conclude that a person with derek eretz could not sleep well if he had a pillow and his servant did not. Hence, if the master gives his pillow to the servant, both sleep well (Kiddushin 20a).
The middah of selflessness means putting the needs of others before our own puny desires. When we understand that God always provides for us, we can put our needs aside to care for our spouses, our children, and our employees.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, father of the mussar movement, describes ego deflation as "killing one's self" in order to obtain the knowledge in Torah. Ego, as observed elsewhere, Edges God Out; it separates us from the Divine and our fellows.
To submit to the members of our household means to be humble, compliant, to make the needs of others a priority, and to promote shalom bayit, peace in the house. Our rabbis teach that if our home is not peaceful, we will have a difficult time being peaceful or productive in the workplace, or in our friendships. Is it worth sacrificing peace to fight over which movie to see or at which restaurant to eat?
One of the very few times we are allowed to tell a white lie is to promote peace at home.
Our obligation to love our fellows is even greater with regard to our spouses and children. "He who loves his wife as himself, but honors her more than himself, is reassured that his home is based on underpinnings of peace" (Yevamot 62). "Parental love should be impartial; one child must not be preferred to the other" (Shabbat 10b). "It is a father's duty not only to provide for his minor children, but also to take care of their instruction, and to teach his son a trade and whatever is necessary for his future welfare" (Kiddushin 29a).
Jewish law forbids us to create an atmosphere of fear in the home. We must address our families in a quiet, gentle way (Gittin 6). Husbands are under special directive "not to bring tears" to their wives (Bava Metzia 59).
In the post Talmudic era, although wife-beating was a common, accepted, and legal practice in both Christian and Muslim Europe, it was considered a grievous sin for Jewish men to treat their wives in such a manner (Shulchan Aruch Even Ha'Ezer, 154:2, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, co-author of Rabbi Karo).
King Solomon advises us to "Relish life with the spouse you love each and every day of your precarious life. Each day is God's gift. It's all you get in exchange for the hard work of staying alive. Make the most of each one!" (Ecclesiastes 9:9).
Fear of sin
Fear of sin has been discussed in many of our Jewish texts. The Path of the Just, Mesillat Yesharim, by the Ramchal (AKA R'Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, d. 1746, Italy) contains a mussar chapter on yirat chet, fear of sin. The traditional perspective is that fear of sin comes from the fear of Divine punishment.
Here is the difficulty. Many, if not most, Jews today deny a God who punishes, and also deny an Olam Ha Ba where God corrects this upside-down world. Some of our sects have truncated God, if they even promote experience with the Divine. Hence, we end up with people who sin openly. "Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush" (Jer. 6:15). "The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand" (Isaiah 1:3).
It is discouraging to see that gossip, pettiness, mean-spiritedness, elitism, and sinat chinam, baseless hatred, are more present than ahavath chesed in many so-called houses of God.
How can we reach the modern Jew? We cannot effect-ively hold the sword of a vengeful God at his neck, and demand that he be good. If we read the TaNaK, that strategy didn't work then, and it doesn't work now.
Transformation requires nothing less than spiritual renewal and awakening. We must affirm the desire to live a good life according to the fundamental rules of common decency described in Derek Eretz. As the Talmud says: "Do not be as slaves who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward" (Pirkei Avot 1:3).
Each person must decide for himself if he is willing to investigate his ways, and to do a chesbon ha nefesh. He must find his own defects of character abhorrent. He cannot change because others tell him that what he is doing is wrong.
We need to discover this for ourselves. When we do, we can confess to God, Who already knows, and to our rabbi (if we can trust him or her). We can ask God to remove our defects via tashlich, which means 'to cast away', and we need not wait until Rosh Ha Shana. We must make teshuvah, amends, to those we have hurt over the years. Living free of character defects benefits us, as well as our fellows. It is truly a universal win-win.
Judging everyone according to his deeds
Although our Talmud and other texts advise us not to judge, we need to remember that our sages, as rabbis, had duties we would find atypical in today's world. They did not serve as congregational rabbis, nor did they appear on the bimah, pulpit, often. Lay leaders led services and gave d'vrei Torah. Rabbis gave d'vrei Torah on two Shabbatot a year: Shabbat ha Gadol, right before Pesach, and Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh ha Shana and Yom Kippur.
One of their duties was to serve on a beth din, a rabbinical court. Often these courts ruled on matters of halakha, Jewish law, or approved conversions or gettim, divorces. They also decided matters of business or criminal law. For their role in the courts, the sages were taught to judge a person only by his deeds—in other words, by the facts in the case. They were instructed not to base their opinions on the reputation or past deeds of the defendant.
The rabbis who served as judges were not to separate themselves from the community. They needed to know what was happening outside of their Talmudic academies. For example, if a person was brought before them for stealing a loaf of bread, and they were aware that the local economy was bad, they might have ruled leniently.
In our current society we can still apply the concept, albeit somewhat differently. As Hillel said, let us not judge another until we can stand in his place (Pirkei Avot 2:4). Since it is impossible to stand in another's place, knowing all of his history, his problems, his loves, his deepest thoughts, it is best not to judge.
We may see that someone is a horrid gossip, but we know that gossips put others down to make themselves feel better. "A vain person seeks to compensate for his feelings of lack by thinking himself superior to people who he can consider to be beneath him" (Rabbeinu Yonah al HaTorah, p.156).
When we judge, when we are cliquish, we not only deny God, but worse, play God. The Talmud teaches, however, that we can be discerning; we can avoid a neighbor with bad character traits.
CHAPTER ONE, VERSE 2
heir thought concerning this world is: "All that is in this world is of no importance to me, for this world is not mine." They are occupied in teaching others, and no one can see in their teaching anything wrong. Their questions are to the point, and their answers are according to the Law.
The 'Law' referred to above means Torah, including the TaNaK, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar. In the Gemara, the rabbinic commentary on the Mishna (Oral Law), the Aramaic word mammon is used to describe non-essential worldy possessions. The rabbis witnessed conspicuous consumption in ancient Babylon, Greece, and Rome, and would see the same today in our 21st century. They believed that one could not serve God while also serving mammon.
They did not oppose capitalism, however. They eschewed monasticism and vows of poverty, and felt little affection for the Jewish sect of the Essenes. They limited the amount of tzedakah, charity, one could give, so as to not allow oneself to become impoverished. Many of our rabbis were very wealthy. Judah ha Nasi, the Prince (ca.175 CE), was rich enough to befriend Caesar Antoninus Pius.
The rabbis intend to convey that chasing after worldly possessions is not the most important activity in life. They understood that nothing in this world truly belonged to them; everything was a loan from God. Nothing could be earned without Divine aid. Anything accumulated could be lost. They understood they were to share their wealth with others who had less, as are we.
A comparison of Talmud Yerushalmi and Talmud Bavli reveals a rivalry between the rabbis of Judea and Persia. What follows below is a vignette that illustrates how the Judean rabbis felt about their wealthier and more ostentatious Persian counterparts.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba and Rabbi Assi were sitting before Rabbi Johanan, while Rabbi Johanan was sitting and dozing. Now, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba asked Rabbi Assi, "Why do the sages in Babylonia dress distinctively?" He answered him: "Because they are not very learned and consequently enhance their status through distinguished, costly clothing."
Rabbi Johanan awoke and said to them, "Children! Didn't I teach you the verse: 'Say unto wisdom, Thou art my sister'(Proverbs 7:4)? If the matter is as clear to you as the knowledge that your sister is forbidden to you sexually, say it; but if not, be wise enough not to speak."
They said to Rabbi Johanan: "Then tell us, master. Why do the scholars of Babylonia
dress distinctively?" And Rabbi Johanan ans-wered: "Because they are not in their original homes, since they are now in Babylonian exile. Some say: 'In my own town my name is sufficient; away from home, the way I dress indicates my status.'"
While R' Johanan defends his Persian colleagues' academics and hermeneutic methodology, he still gives a zetz to their worldly means of dressing.
It is fine to work hard and to earn money, even to be-come wealthy, but we should not allow ourselves to become deluded by mammon. We should not allow ourselves to lose conscious contact with the Divine.
The next part of the verse teaches us that a rabbi's primary role is to teach others. Pirkei Avot, in the very first verse, tells us that one of a rabbi's three major obligations is to "establish many talmidim" (students). It is a relatively recent phenomenon to find rabbis weekly on the bimah, leading prayer services, sitting in board meetings, collecting money for building funds, and acting the role of both Master of Ceremonies and maitre d' from the Borscht Belt.
Few, if any, of our sages would meet the requirements of a modern rabbinic search committee. The lesson for each of us is to share what we are best at doing, and not spend our energies doing what others can do.
Furthermore, our rabbis must teach correct material. Failure to do so is a grave matter that meets one of the definitions of lifnei iver, putting a stumbling block before the blind. For those who are not rabbis, this part of the verse reminds us to share accurate information, and to avoid lashon ha ra (gossip, slander, talking about others).
Rabbis need to remember to keep our egos out of what we teach. We must label our opinions as such, and teach the sages' lessons on a topic thoroughly before going off on tangents. Everyone needs to remember humility, as well as modesty. "Rabbi Zeira said in the name of Rava bar Zimna, 'If the earlier Sages were the sons of angels, then we are the sons of men; but if the earlier Sages were the sons of men, then we are donkeys'" (Shabbat 112a).
When we ask questions, we are not to make speeches. How many of us have attended a Q&A at the end of a lecture, and found ourselves listening to a speech someone launched in the guise of a question? Such a person, driven by ego, wants to show us how smart he thinks he is. I was guilty of this for years. It is selfish. The Talmud tells us that a jar with one coin can still make a lot of noise (Bava Metzia 85b).
Here is a cute exchange that illustrates how a son is to ask his father a question:
Rabbi Elazar asked Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, his father, "Why did the blessed Holy One see fit to send the Israelites down to Egypt?"
He replied, "Are you asking me one question or two?"
Rabbi Elazar responded, "I'm asking two questions: Why were they sent into exile, and why down to Egypt?"
Rabbi Shimon answered: "Actually, the two are connected and become one question."
—from the Zohar 2:14b
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
(ca. 140 CE)
Our words are as precious as coins. Use them wisely. My dear friend Rabbi B. Bloom taught me that less is more. Words can hurt and words can heal. Let us strive to only use our words to uplift others.
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Jewish Spiritual Renewal
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www.JewishSpiritualRenewal.com/books www.FaceBook.com/Arthur.L.Segal www.FaceBook.com/RabbiArthurSegalJewishSpiritualRenewal www.RabbiArthurSegal.blogspot.com
Jewish Spiritual Renewal
Hilton Head Island, SC; Bluffton, SC; Savannah, GA