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Who Is Wise?

The next time you’re sitting with friends or family, try asking everyone the following:

On a scale of 1-10, how important is it to you personally to be or become wise, strong, rich or important (famous)? How important do you think these things are to most people?

After they answer, share this famous proverb from our ancient book of Avot (4:1):

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? Who is strong? Who is rich? Who is important?

What are the obvious man-on-the-street answers to those questions? What would you guess are Ben Zoma’s answers?

Man-on-the-street answers:

Who is wise? Someone with a very long beard, or someone with many fancy letters after their name.

Who is strong? Someone who can do a lot of pushups.

Who is rich? Someone with at least $1,000,000 in net assets.

Who is important? Someone whom people pay money to see, or who has a statue or building in their honor.

Ben Zoma:

Who is wise? Someone with the attitude, “I need to pay attention to everyone because everyone has something to teach me.”

Yes – even that random person you encounter in line at the grocery store, the barista who serves you coffee, everyone.

Who is strong? Someone with inner strength, who acts with self-control — not only in avoiding temptation but also in overcoming inertia or laziness and taking action when needed.

Yes – doing what you know you should do even though you don’t feel like it.

Who is rich? Someone who is able to focus on enjoying the present moment.

Yes – actually slowing down and pausing to savor the now.

Who is important? Someone who treats everything in Creation as important.

Yes – if something or someone exists, that means that it or they are part of God’s plan and that makes them important.

Is Ben Zoma has turned the average man-on-the-street answers on their heads – he has shown us a new, elevated, uplifting way to think about how we live our daily lives.

But because his lesson is counter-intuitive, does he mean to suggest that these four orientations are rare because they are hard to achieve, or does he mean to encourage us that they are within anyone’s grasp?

About the Author
Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld PhD is the Executive Director of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc (JSLI.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing Jewish education at all levels. He is the author of Body & Soul: The Torah Path to Health, Fitness and a Holy LIfe; The Art of Amazement (available in Hebrew as Omanut Ha’Hitpa’alut); and the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar iPhone app. His weekly Torah Health podcast may be heard on TorahAnytime.com.