Friday, May 20, 2011

What More Can I Add to This?

(If you read this blog online only, you may have noticed that there was no post last week.... I actually did write a blog but blogger was down. Those who subscribe via email received their Table Talk as usual, and several said it really moved them. Time to subscribe to the email version?)

Sometimes the news headlines are so colorful, I wonder why bother sending you a story for your dinner table?

Haven't the headlines given us enough to talk about?

Yes... and no...

If your dinner table includes children, or adults who have a sense of discretion, the two stories of male indiscretion (one confirmed, the other alleged) that rocked all news media worldwide this week need some kind of spin.

If you and your family are already more familiar than you care to be with these two headlines, then here's a great starter question for your table:

How would you imagine a religious family would talk about Former-candidate-for-president-of-France and Former-Governor-of-California?

While the latter Former, being of Teutonic descent, may possibly plead ignorance, the former Former, being Jewish, should have been aware that we Jews have an ancient book of ethics.

It's called Pirkei Avot.

No, it doesn't say "don't be a chauvinist", it's a little more subtle than that.

Here's one of its most quotable quotes:
Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.
Who is mighty? He who subdues his passions.
Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has.
Who is honored? One who honors others.

Let's think for a moment what Ben Zoma is trying to tell us.

He is saying: there is a conventional definition, and there is a spiritual definition.

Try asking at your table: "Give me an example of someone you consider wise."

Most people will answer with someone who knows a lot of stuff. Ben Zoma is telling us that the enlightened definition of wisdom is not a measure of how much you know rather your attitude towards learning, your humility towards others.

Ask everyone at your table to give an example of someone who is mighty or strong. Most people will say someone who is either physically strong (eg, Former-Governor-of-California) or someone who is politically or economically mighty (eg, Former-Candidate-for-President-of-France).

Do you see where this is going?

Ben Zoma is telling us that the truly mighty is someone who can control his or her passions. There could be no better illustration of this idea than this week's headlines.

Former-Candidate-for-President-of-France, by political and economic measures (was) one of the more mighty human beings on the planet, evidently (allegedly) is not mighty at all, according to the Jewish book of ethics.

Former-Governor-of-California, who built his entire career and fortune on the projection of physical strength and used that image to persuade the citizens of the world's fifth mightiest country to make him their leader, has been unmasked as a 235-lb weakling.

Final question for your table: Looking at Ben Zoma's definitions, who are the wisest, strongest, richest and most honored people you know?

Shabbat Shalom (and Happy Lag B'Omer)

UPDATE - In reply to several readers' questions - I am neither presuming nor insinuating Former-Candidate-for-President-of-France to be guilty as charged, and have added the word "alleged" above. He may very well be found (and I hope is) innocent. Moreover, it is a shame that he has been tried and convicted by the media. I am rather reacting to the news. The news headlines are, in my opinion, a reminder to all of us of the continued relevance of Ben Zoma's wisdom, regardless of the outcome of any specific case.

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