While reading some Talmudic and Aggadic writings, I came across a section from Pirkei Avot that I simply could not ignore. Now, for those not familiar, Pirkei Avot, (meaning “Ethics of our Fathers”) is a section of the Mishnah, which is the first text of the oral Jewish law. The writings of Pirkei Avot are mostly aggadic, and do not contain halakha (or law). What we have in this Jewish text are the thoughts and ideas in the collective consciousness of the rabbis at the time of the Mishnah. These writings would be dated around the beginning of the Common Era. We are talking about thoughts from the great rabbinic minds of approximately 2,000 years ago. It might be easy to write off such mature texts as antiquated or obsolete. The question becomes–does human nature ever truly change?
Let’s look at Pirkei Avot 5:7
According to this chapter and verse, there exist seven characteristics in a person whose mind is imperfectly developed, and seven in a person who is wise. What are the seven characteristics of one who is wise? According to the rabbis:
- A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom.
- A wise man does not break in on the words of his fellow.
- A wise man is not hasty to answer.
- A wise man asks what is relevant and answers what is appropriate.
- A wise man speaks on the first point first and on the last point last.
- A wise man says of that which he has not heard: “I have not heard it.”
- A wise man acknowledges the truth.
I do realize that I utilized the words “wise man.” I used “man” as opposed to “person” because this verse catalyzed a visceral reaction in me as it relates to one particular man. I am confident that by the time you are finished reading, I will not have been mistaken when thinking that it was unnecessary to even type his name on the page.
It is not a secret that our country is sick and in need of r’fuah sh’leimah, or a complete healing. As the global pandemic continues to ravage the citizens of our nation, we are also at a time of reckoning in terms of this country’s long-surviving systemic racism. While it would be unfair to expect any one human being to possess the capacity to single-handedly fix the multitude of issues and injustices of this country–it does not seem as if anyone is asking for such prolificness. What am I asking for?
I am asking for someone who defers to, and especially does not denigrate, the foremost expert on infectious diseases in the country during a deadly pandemic–someone who does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom. I am asking for someone who, when faced with opposing viewpoints, let alone simple fact-checking, does not angrily stop an interview–someone who does not break in on the words of his fellow. I am asking for someone who does not “tweet” or speak before considering the aftershock. Yes, anti-semitic, racist, and hurtful and baseless statements do matter–someone who is not hasty to answer. I am asking for someone who when faced with the largest public health crisis in a century, and during a time of unspeakable pain and outcry from people of color, does not hold a dangerous and irresponsible rally where he talks about how well he drinks water and walks down ramps–someone who asks what is relevant and answers what is appropriate. I am asking for someone who, when faced with the aforementioned significant issues and direct questions, does not deflect and discuss the artificiality of media or the water in a dishwasher–someone who speaks on the first point first and on the last point last. I am asking for someone who, instead of assembling and deferring to a qualified team of experts, talks of possessing a “mind of extreme intelligence and stability”–someone who says of that which he has not heard: “I have not not heard it.” I am asking for someone who simply does not lie, especially an approximated 23.8 times per day–someone who acknowledges the truth.
According to the rabbis of two millennia ago, the reverse of these seven characteristics portray a mind that is imperfectly developed. This is not a political post, but a post of great concern for the welfare of the country that I was told was “tviz’ot goyim,” or coveted by all the nations. For those who would follow this particular man as if he were a sage or a prophet, I would urge you to be wary. The Talmud seems to be speaking to you as well. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: “When a man boasts, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his gift of prophecy departs from him” (B Pes. 66b.) What “boasts” do I speak of?
“No one is more conservative than me.”
“No one is stronger on the Second Amendment than me.”
“No one respects women more than me. No one reads the Bible more than me.”
“There’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am.”
“There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”
“There’s nobody who feels more strongly about women’s health issues.”
“Nobody knows more about taxes than me, maybe in the history of the world.”
I truly pray that everyone in this country be granted peace and good health. The wounds are deep right now, and we need a steady hand to steer the ship during these especially tumultuous times, not a clouded mind rife with imperfection and boastfulness. It does not take 2,000 year old texts to see this–but in case it does, you can read again from the beginning. And, wow, there is certainly so much more where that came from.
I pray that we cross over this river and enter the promised land as a society sooner rather than later. We do not need a sage or a prophet. We just need clarity and decency. Stay healthy and be well.
P.S. Did you get the wink in the post’s title?