Israel of Kozhnitz on Pirkei Avot, from Avodas Israel.
Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from every person. Who is mighty? One who conquers his evil inclination. Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion. Who is honored? One who honors all creatures.
Who is Wise? The one who learns from every person.
The verse that Ben Zoma cites for this teaching is “From all of my teachers I have grown wise” (1). Even when you hear words of Torah from someone who is not considered worthy to teach, you have something to learn, for sometimes Torah goes out from the mouth of even “unworthy” people. Each of us is like a shoot from the great and holy tree that is God (2). A tree has large boughs and small branches, but they all blossom with the same life from the same source inside the tree. Likewise, there are high and holy souls among us and also souls that are still growing in knowledge, but Torah flows through all of them, and even one with little knowledge can say something new with the power of this overflowing Torah.
Who is Mighty? The one who conquers his evil inclination.
That is, we each need to keep watch over our own evil inclination, over those things that cause us to stumble, and to conquer them. We should not concern ourselves with other people’s shortcomings, for who knows who is actually the better person? Thus it doesn’t say “the Evil Inclination,” but “his evil inclination,” that is, his own, and no one else’s.
Who is Rich? The one who is happy with his portion.
The Holy One of Blessing created the world and has no greater pleasure than when we do the divine will. Thus it is God who is “happy with his portion,” for “God’s portion is His people” (3), who serve Him. Likewise, we should be happy in our portion which the Creator gave us, which is to serve Him.
Who is Honored? The one who honors others.
The Creator is called “The King of Honor” (4), for God divided the divine honor among all people…Likewise, we must honor all creatures as holders of God’s own honor.
1) Psalms 119:99 2) See Isaiah 60:21 3) Deuteronomy 32:8 4) or, less literally, “The Honored King”; Psalms 24:7
Jeff Amshalem is a graduate student of Hasidic thought at Ben-Gurion University.