Introduction Ben Zoma’s full name was Shimon ben Zoma, and he is never called by the title Rabbi, although he was clearly quite learned. He is famous for being one of the four rabbis who entered into the “Pardes”, the mythical orchard, which may refer to some type of esoteric theological speculation. The experience was too much for him and he went crazy (one died, another became an apostate and one, Rabbi Akiva, became one of the great sages of Jewish history). In this mishnah Ben Zoma teaches the definitions of wise, mighty, rich and honored. In my humble opinion the advice that he gives is amongst the best and most useful advice ever given.
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). A person who is ready to learn from anyone will not reject the things he learns from other people just because they do not have high social or economic standing. For instance, a good teacher will not reject a suggested explanation from a student just because the student is younger and less experienced. A truly wise person is always looking for ways to expand his knowledge. This is true even of one who does not know a lot. If he is always looking for ways to learn, then he is truly wise.
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 16:3. This one statement may sum up 2000 years of Jewish experience. The Jewish ideal of strength and might is not the same as the Greek ideal, which is that of the mighty warrior and champion athlete. A person of great physical strength who performs amazing deeds is not necessarily mighty. The most difficult thing to conquer is not others or even great armies, but our own inclination to do wrong things. One who has control over this inclination is truly mighty. This is why for thousands of years Jews did not look to soldiers as their heroes, but to rabbis and other thinkers. Strength in Judaism is one of character and not one of might. After all the strongest person in the world is no stronger than a weak gorilla or bear. It is only through our ability to curb our appetites and control our instincts that human beings can differ themselves from animals.
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. This saying can be observed every day in newspapers and magazines. The rich and famous are not called the rich and happy for good reasons. Wealth is not measured by how much money one has in the bank account, but by how satisfied one is with what one has. This is not to say that people should not work hard in order to earn more money, or that people should renounce their material wealth and live lives of poverty. Such is not a typically Jewish ideal. However, along with working hard, a person who wants to be happy must be satisfied with what he has. In the middle of this section is a brief interpolated midrash on the verse from Psalms. The verse seems superfluous for it would have been enough to state either that “you will be happy” or “and you shall prosper”. The repetition teaches, according to the mishnah, that the verse refers to happiness and prosperity in both this world and the next.
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). One who honors others is really bringing honor to himself. Note that the prooftext from I Samuel is said by God, and not by a human being. However, one could argue that all the more so this is true with regard to humans. If God honors those who honor Him, even though we were only created to honor Him, all the more so will humans honor those who honor them.