Monday, June 24, 2013

Who is Rich?

Last week, I raised the second of Ben Zoma’s famous four Talmudic questions: Who is powerful? Thank you for sharing your insights and answers, which will make their way into my sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Please keep them coming this week!

As promised, the answer to last week’s query: Who is powerful?  Those who control their passions.

Now, on to this week’s question: “Who is rich?”

By the standard measure, Bill Gates.  He recently regained the title of world’s wealthiest person, passing Mexican telecommunications mogul Carlos Slimm and Warren Buffet.  To his credit, Gates is also one of the world’s most generous people, donating huge sums of money to his charitable foundation and encouraging fellow billionaires to do the same.  Gates’ current net worth is estimated to be $72.7 billion.

But one might ask: who cares?  Forbes magazine notes that in 2013, there were 1426 billionaires in the world.  What difference does it make where one ranks on that list?  A billion dollars is an unfathomably large fortune—surely more than anyone could spend in a lifetime.  So who cares whether one is worth one billion or fifty billion?  At this level of wealth, it all becomes a kind of game.

But maybe money is not the best measure of wealth.   A person can be rich in many other, more important things: experience, knowledge, family, love.  As the competition over ranking on the Forbes list demonstrates, if the goal is the pursuit of money, there is no end.  Unless you are Bill Gates, there will always be someone else with more. 

When Tevye sings, “If I Was a Rich Man,” we empathize, because he is a dirt-poor dairy farmer.

But when rock star, actress and fashion-designer Gwen Stefani sings her version, “If I Was a Rich Girl,” the effect is either ironic or ridiculous because she is, in fact, a very, very rich girl.

So. . . who do you think is rich, and why?

Send me your thoughts at

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Who is Powerful?

Last week, I raised the first of Ben Zoma’s famous four Talmudic questions: Who is wise? As I noted, I plan to dedicate my High Holy Day sermons next fall to these queries. Your insights and answers will inform my words, making for a more communal experience during the Days of Awe.

So, to begin, here’s the answer to last week’s query, for any who didn’t already know or take the time to google it: Who is wise?  One who learns from all people.

Now, on to this week’s question: “Who is powerful?”
By way of response, a few loosely-connected meditations on power:

  •  Those compelled to flaunt their power usually don’t possess as much as they think.  True authority comes with the security to exercise it judiciously.  To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, it’s more about talking softly than carrying the big stick—and wielding the stick very, very rarely.
  •  Power, as we usually think of it, is fleeting.  Every year, Forbes publishes a list of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful People.”  Not surprisingly, Barack Obama currently holds the top spot.  But come 2017, he will undoubtedly fall off the list entirely—as did Bill Clinton and George Bush before him.  And even today, as the most powerful person in the world, he is frustrated by the lack of 60 votes to stop a filibuster in the Senate.  He can be thwarted by a virtually unknown senator from North Dakota (or, for that matter, Idaho).
  •  Ironically, earthly power usually makes you more—not less—vulnerable.  Mel Brooks to the contrary, it isn’t always good to be the king.  The higher the pedestal, the more people looking to knock you off—and the harder the fall.
  • For most of our history, Jews, like other minorities (and women), have lacked power in the conventional sense.  Until 1948, we had no armies, no sovereignty, and usually no citizenship.  The danger of such powerlessness was brutally illustrated by the Holocaust.
  • Yet sometimes, those without conventional power find ways to prevail, usually by outwitting their opponents.  Theirs is the power of the trickster.  To turn to the classic Jewish archetypes, Esau is much stronger than Jacob—yet Jacob gains the upper hand.   The mighty empires of the ancient world are all gone: Babylon, Egypt, Rome.  Yet we are still here, having outlived them all.  This kind of power can be essential for creating change and justice in the world.  As Audre Lorde wrote of dismantling racism, “The master’s tools never dismantle the master’s house.” 
  • New cultures create new opportunities.  Who would have thought that former high school geeks would now run the world as the new kings (and a few queens) of the high tech world?
  • Without self-control, there is no real mastery of anything.

So, who do you think is powerful, and why?  Send me your thoughts at

Friday, June 7, 2013

Who is Wise?

Last week, I raised Ben Zoma’s famous four Talmudic questions: Who is wise?  Who is strong?  Who is rich?  Who is honored?  As I noted, I plan to dedicate my four High Holy Day sermons next fall to these queries.  I’m putting them out to  you, my community, now, in the hope that you will share your own thoughts and responses with me.  Your insights and answers will inform my sermons, making for a more communal experience during the Days of Awe.

So for this week’s question: “Who is wise?”

For many years, IQ was seen as the standard measure of intelligence.  In recent years, thanks to the work of thinkers like Howard Gardner and Daniel Goleman, we tend to think in terms of multiple intelligences.  One can be a musical genius and still be very slow at learning languages.  Emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are surely just as critical as cognitive reasoning, and “street smarts” are no less important than acumen in the the classroom.

Maybe, then, there is no good, over-arching, single answer to Ben Zoma’s question.  Perhaps there are many kinds of wisdom—and the world needs all of them.  Each of us contributes our own gifts.

I also like to distinguish between wisdom and intelligence.  Ben Zoma does not ask: “Who is smart?”  He asks, “Who is wise?” which is not the same thing. 

In the Jewish mystical tradition, three of the sephirot, the emanations of God that are found on the classic kabbalistic tree, correspond to ways of knowing the world: chochmah, binah, and da’at.  As Rabbi Noah Orlowek explains them, chochmah is practical knowledge—how to do things.  Binah is knowledge of relationships, putting A and B together, logical reasoning and intuition.  And da’at is experiential knowledge.  By Rabbi Orlowek’s adept analogy, when you tell a child not to touch the hot stove, you’ve given her chochmah.  When the child sees a pot on the stove and figures out that it might be hot, too, she’s employing binah.  When, nonetheless, she puts her hand on the stove—now she has da’at!

 So, who do you think is wise, and why?  Send me your thoughts at


Monday, June 3, 2013

Ben Zoma's Four Questions

Who is wise?  Who is strong?  Who is rich?  Who is honored?

Ben Zoma raises these four questions in the Talmud (Mishnah Avot 4:1).  They are matters of great significance, for most of us spend a considerable portion of our lives seeking wisdom, strength, riches (material and/or spiritual), and honor.  But we all look at these things differently, and how we define them goes a long way toward shaping how we choose to pursue (or not pursue) them.

Next fall, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I plan to dedicate my four major sermons to these questions.  On Rosh Hashanah eve, I will ponder, “Who is wise?”  Rosh Hashanah morning will cover, “Who is strong?” and Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur morning will address, respectively, “Who is rich?” and “Who is honored?”

Now for the new, communal angle to this: I am seeking your responses to these questions.  Over the next four weeks, I am going to depart from my usual e-Torah format (offering commentary on the weekly Torah portion) to, instead, pose Ben Zoma’s questions to you, my community.  Please email your thoughts and responses to me at  Your insights and answers will inform my fall sermons, making for a more communal experience during the Days of Awe.

Ben Zoma does provide his own answers to his queries, and over the next month’s e-Torah, I will share his responses—but not until a week after I pose each question. For now, suffice to say that Ben Zoma does not accept conventional understandings of these categories.

This week, I hope that you will reflect on these four questions as a whole grouping.  Next week, we will begin to consider each, individually, in more detail, starting with “Who is wise?”

Again, please email me with your thoughts and responses.


Rabbi Dan