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PSYCHED FOR TORAH

Integrating Timeless Wisdom with Cutting Edge Research

Welcome to Psyched for Torah, a blog designed to share ideas related to Torah and Psychology. As a practicing rabbi and a licensed psychologist, I believe that the wisdom and lessons from the Torah and the modern discoveries from the field of Psychology can be combined to create an ideal space for personal, communal and spiritual flourishing.

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PSYCHED FOR AVOT

A WEEKLY BLOG POST

BLENDING THE ANCIENT WISDOM OF PIRKEI AVOT

AND MODERN PSYCHOLOGY

FOR PERSONAL GROWTH

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Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding” (Psalms 119:99). Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper” (Psalms 128:2) “You shall be happy” in this world, “and you shall prosper” in the world to come. Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings as it is said: “For I honor those that honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored” (I Samuel 2:30).

 

In one of the most memorable mishnayot in Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma offers four pithy and powerful messages related to four of the most potentially dangerous human desires: knowledge, power, wealth, and honor. Jewish studies scholar Henry Fischel likens Ben Zoma’s style to the Stoic paradoxa, which were prevalent and popular during Ben Zoma’s time. Paradoxa’s “state in an extreme and abrupt form some of the major ethical premises of the stoic concept of the Sage.” They were not necessarily paradoxical in the contemporary usage of the term but were contrary to the generally held opinions and assumptions of the public. Without referencing the Stoics, 16th century Safedian Rabbi Shmuel de Uceda makes the same point to unify Ben Zoma’s four statements: they all challenge the common conception of how the masses understand these virtues.

 

Rabbi de Uceda adds another important message to frame the Mishna. Many people assume that wisdom, strength, wealth, and honor are predetermined, predestined, and fixed beyond any individual’s control. Using contemporary language, we might suppose that intelligence and strength are genetically coded, and wealth and honor are culturally, socially, economically, or politically determined. Through his redefining of these virtues, Ben Zoma demonstrates that these virtues are all attainable through human agency despite these factors. They are not dependent or reliant on others or outside factors. The cultivation of what psychologist Julian Rotter calls an “internal locus of control,” is essential for moral growth. By knowing that it is in our power to cultivate our character, we are able to develop these strengths. 

 

Taking this idea one step further, these four concepts are subject to social comparison. We tend to define our own levels of wisdom, power, wealth, and honor by likening how much of these commodities we have in relation to others. According to psychologist Leon Festinger, when we make downward social comparisons, we tend to inflate our sense of self by reflecting on how much more we have than others. In contrast, when we make upward social comparisons, we often feel lacking when compared to those who excel. Ben Zoma, specifically in these areas where we are prone to defining ourselves based on others, tells us to focus on an internal definition of success. 

 

Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding” (Psalms 119:99). 

 

Ben Zoma defines wisdom as a disposition to desire to learn from everyone. This intellectual stance, writes Rabbeinu Yonah, demonstrates a love of learning. Reminiscent of Dr. Carol Dweck’s construct of growth mindset, Rabbi de Uceda points to the fact that even the highest sage is referred to as a Talmid Chacham, a student of wisdom, because what is more important than acquisition of knowledge is the life-long desire to continue learning.  Wisdom can be discovered everywhere and in everyone. Every individual has some insight or life experience to contribute. Some commentaries go so far to encourage learning positive traits even from the uneducated or religiously uncommitted. This demonstrates an extreme trait of intellectual humility. Moreover, seeking the wisdom in others, is a prosocial act which elevates others, adding a moral dimension to an otherwise intellectual pursuit. 

 

Who is mighty? He who subdues his inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). 

 

This second statement promotes self-control as the ultimate form of strength, rather than physical power.  While the concept of yetzer is complex, here it seems to be used as natural human psychological tendencies for anger and perhaps other vices such as self-interest and physical desires. The word subdue (kovesh) is used, according to some commentaries, to indicate that the yetzer can never be fully eradicated, and more importantly, it can be sublimated and utilized for productive purposes as well. This may also explain why the word “evil” is not used as a descriptor. The yetzer, controlled and channeled, has redemptive capabilities. 

 

It may be important that the prooftext used to support Ben Zoma’s maxim relates specifically to anger. Anger, an emotion usually directed at others and often to demonstrate dominance or power, should be transmuted in a way that focuses on development of the self. Strength doesn’t come from physical or verbal reactivity, but from prioritizing the inner transformation, working internally to control the anger response.  

 

Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper” (Psalms 128:2) “You shall be happy” in this world, “and you shall prosper” in the world to come. 

 

Most physical desires have a built-in mechanism to discourage overindulgence. While I may be able to overeat, there is a physical limitation, known as the satiation principle, that would prevent me from eating constantly and incessantly. One of the dangers in the pursuit of money, writes Abarbanel, is that it does not have the same limitations. There is no biological principle that automatically limits the desire to amass more money. 

 

Yet, money does not necessarily buy happiness. The psychological literature on the topic is nuanced and complex. Money and happiness are correlated, but only to a certain extent. People who do not have enough money to meet their basic needs tend not to experience as much happiness as those who are fortunate to have the requisite funds. When analyzing the data related to accumulating money above that baseline quantity, some studies indicate that there is no correlation to happiness, and others indicate that more money can lead to more happiness. Some resolve the debate by suggesting that the happiness level depends on what a person spends his or her money on. Buying gifts for others or investing into meaningful experiences tend to lead to increased happiness. Relatedly, in his commentary on this Mishna, Mirkevet HaMishna suggests that happiness comes from spending money on spiritual pursuits. 

 

Ben Zoma contends that feelings of wealth are subjective to being content and satisfied with one’s portion. Psychologist Barry Schwartz distinguishes between maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers want the most of everything and want to make the best choices, while satisficers are happy with “good enough.” Echoing the wisdom of Ben Zoma, it is the satisficers who tend to be the happiest. 

 

What does it mean to rejoice in “his lot”? Most commentaries assume that it means to rejoice in the portion that God grants the person. Alternatively, perhaps the emphasis is on rejoicing in what the person earns and creates. This is indicated in the choice of prooftext, which mentions enjoying “the fruit of your labors.” This relates to the concept deemed the “Ikea effect,” where people value and enjoy the products they created themselves. Ben Zoma is teaching us to savor and enjoy the products of our own labor.

 

Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings as it is said: “For I honor those that honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored” (I Samuel 2:30).

 

Honor comes by giving it to others. The way we treat and respect others will be the ultimate indicator of whether we deserve honor. This requires humility and a mindset that looks for greatness in others. Utilizing the concept of social comparisons, Abarbanel recommends finding others who are better than we are and honoring them for those strengths. 

 

As Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski writes, the only way for me to psychologically allow myself to honor you is if I had a sense of self-esteem and self-respect.  He writes that “A person with good self-respect is not dependent on others to honor him. In fact, he is very comfortable in honoring others, and this does not pose any threat to his self-esteem.” Without these, my defense mechanisms would not allow me to defer to the other and would make it more likely that I would pursue honor directly, which would likely backfire. 

 

Even though the personal pursuit of honor is discouraged, providing it for others is valued. This is part of a broader paradox described by Rabbi Israel Salanter where we are encouraged to provide delicacies and luxuries for others that we should otherwise shun for personal use. To borrow 20th century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ term, there is an “asymmetry” to how we are called on to relate to others. It is not about treating the other like the self, but rather treating the other higher than the self. 

 

In sum, these four counterintuitive messages encourage us to avoid vices by turning them into virtues. Instead of focusing on social comparisons to bring us into a competitive spirit with others, we should focus on our own internal growth and development. This shift in perspective allows us to convert desires that often lead to disharmony into ones that promote prosocial behavior and unity. 

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PSYCHED FOR TORAH

ESSAYS INTEGRATING PSYCHOLOGICAL IDEAS WITH THE WEEKLY TORAH PORTION

RABBI DR. MORDECHAI SCHIFFMAN

PsychedForTorah.com

@PsychedForTorah

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