The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai always inspires me. He wrote of the spirit of renewal, one of the central themes of the upcoming High Holiday season:
“From the place where we are right / Flowers will never grow / In the spring.”
These simple three phrases suggest that humility is essential to natural and human growth and that the other virtues are dependent upon it.
I offer three more short passages from Talmudic literature that speak of virtues cherished in Jewish tradition and worthy of our consideration as we enter into the New Year.
“Ben Zoma said:
“Eizeh hu chacham – Who is wise? Ha-lomed mi kol adam – The one who learns something from every other human being.
Eizeh hu gibor – Who is strong? Ha-kovesh et yitzro – the one who subdues his/her evil inclination.
Eizeh hu ashir – Who is wealthy? Ha-sameiach b’chelko – The one who is satisfied with his/her portion.
Eizeh hu m’chubad – Who is honored? Ha-m’chabed et ha-briyot – The one who honors others.”
Mishna Avot 4:1
Ben Zoma’s answers to his questions (Who is wise? Who is strong? Who is wealthy? Who is honored?) are the opposite of what we might expect.
Wisdom depends not on being the smartest person with the highest IQ in the room, but on developing high emotional intelligence that begins with humility so as to be able to learn something new in the interaction with every person we encounter, young or old, wise or simple, wealthy or poor, friend or foe, of high or low station.
Strength isn’t determined by physical brawn, but by our ability to control our anger, lust, craving, and desire.
Wealth is not measured by the accumulation of more and better material things, but by how satisfied we are with whatever we possess.
Honor is not attained by the striving after position, but by humility before all, and by deference and generosity towards others thus honoring who they are and openly respecting and praising their virtues and accomplishments.
“Rabbi Ilai says: Bishloshah devarim adam nikar: b’koso, u-v’kiso, u-v’ka-aso. V’amri lei: af b’sach’ko – a person is known by three things: one’s cup, one’s wallet, and one’s anger. Some say: one’s enjoyment of life (i.e. how a person spends one’s leisure time).
Talmud, Eruvim 65a
A person’s nature, values, and integrity are measured and observed when he/she drinks too much liquor or abuses other mind-altering substances (koso –“cup”), by one’s integrity in business and honesty in every day financial affairs, and generosity towards others (kiso –“wallet”), how one controls one’s emotions (ka-aso –anger), and some say how one spends one’s leisure time (sach’ko – fun time).
“A man came before Hillel and asked to be converted. Hillel said – Da-alach s’nei l’chav’rach la ta-aveid – That which is hateful to you do not do to another – zo hi kol haTorah kulah – that is the entire Torah – v’idakh peirusha hu, zil g’mor – and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.”
Talmud, Shabbat 31a
The so-called “Golden Rule” is a variation on three words in the central verse in the central book of the five books of Moses – Leviticus 19:18 – “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha!” “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself” because like him/her, “I” (the Holy Creator) created you in the Divine image.” (Genesis 1:27)
A prayer for the New Year 5782
May each of us, the people we love, all those in our friendship and collegial circles, and in our wider Jewish community be healthy and strengthened in our communal and individual resolve to grow, confront challenge, be creative, relevant, and productive on behalf of others. May our liberal Jewish and progressive Zionist values guide us in confronting injustice and hardship and in promoting human dignity and human rights. And may our people in Israel and around the world know safety and peace.
L’shanah tovah u-m’tukah – A good and sweet New Year to you all.