Sermon: Eizehu Chacham? On wisdom and leadership

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 16 July 2016

“Eizehu gibbor – Who is strong? The one who controls his impulses.
Eizehu ashir – Who is rich? The one who is happy with what he has.
Eizehu m’chubad – Who is honoured? The one who honours others”.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with rabbinic literature is likely to be familiar with this series of questions and answers.  They’re taken from a text found in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Sages, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period – that is, from the first couple of centuries CE.  They are found in pretty much every siddur, every prayerbook, including ours, reflecting a tradition to study them on Shabbat afternoons through the summer.  This particular text is reported in the name of Shimon ben Zoma, a second century rabbi from the Land of Israel.
These are his questions, and his answers.  And they are wonderfully disarming.  They redefine concepts of strength, wealth, honour, in ethical terms, making them about our personal moral behaviour.

Because of its insight, and its pithiness, Ben Zoma’s text becomes one of the formative texts of Jewish literature: widely taught and oft-quoted.  This text is so widely quoted, so well known, in fact, that something may have seemed out of place to you when I recited it a moment ago.  Something was, indeed out of place.  Because, I missed one of Ben Zoma’s questions out.
The first question in his series is actually “eizehu chacham – who is wise?”

What makes this question different?  Why did I single it out?

Unlike the other questions in his list, which, when they are quoted elsewhere, are always given as answered by Ben Zoma, the answer to ‘eizehu chacham’ is a matter of some debate.  Rabbinic literature poses this direct question three times, and each time gives a different answer, each of which has some insight for us today.

I’ll return to Ben Zoma’s – the famous – answer in a moment.
Less well known is a variant version of the list found in the Babylonian Talmud.  In Tractate Tamid we find a, probably deliberate, misquoting of the Pirkei Avot original.  The Talmud describes an imaginary interaction between Alexander the Great and the Ziknei ha’Negev, the Elders of the South.   The Talmud puts most of Ben Zoma’s questions in the mouth of the all-conquering general.  So, he asks, (rather oddly, fluent in Babylonian Aramaic): “Eidein mitk’rei chakim – who is called wise?”
The elders answer “Eizehu chacham? Ha-ro’eh et ha-nolad”.  “Who is wise? The one who sees the nolad”.  Which literally means, the one who sees what is born.

This is not what Ben Zoma says the answer is, and the Talmudic commentators, as you would imagine, go all out on this fact, trying to work out why.  But before they do so, they also need to work out what on earth it means: the one who sees what is born.  Assuming that it is not a reference to the wisdom of midwives, what is “that which is born”?

One answer is provided by the sixteenth-seventeenth century Talmudist Samuel Edels, known as the Maharsha.  He suggests that this means the wise person sees the purpose for which he or she was born, that is to serve God.  Wisdom lies in a sense of perspective about one’s own attributes, from where one’s learning and power comes, and to what it should be directed.  It’s a pretty great definition – and certainly one that Alexander of Macedon probably needed to hear, as many of us do, too.

Most commentators explain that wisdom lies in the ability to foresee, to look forward.  Not, perhaps, in the sense of prophesy, but being able to work out, to anticipate outcomes.  Eizehu chacham, who is wise?  The answer of the Babylonian Talmud is that the wise person is aware that there will be consequences from their actions.  This is a quite wonderful insight.  It is, after all, what we seek to teach our children – that their actions will have consequences.
“Eizehu chacham – ha-ro’eh et ha-nolad”: We should, if we are wise look forward, trace through the consequences of our actions – perhaps even before we give birth to them.

Of course, the gift of foresight is limited; as human beings we are prone to stridency, to over-firm opinions and predictions.  Which is one of the reasons that Ben Zoma’s answer to his own question is so famous, and so insightful.
His, the more famous, answer, as found in Pirkei Avot:
“Eizehu chacham? Ha-lomed mi-kol Adam”.
“Who is wise? The one who learns from every person”.
Not the one who knows the most, or is the most forthright, but one who is willing and able to hear the opinions of others. The Talmud expresses it in another way, in the words of Rabbi Chanina: “Much have I learned from my masters, even more from my colleagues, and from my students more than from all of them”. Wisdom is understanding that knowledge is not about status, not being concerned with always being right, but being able to learn from everyone – whatever their position in society.

There is one other place where the rabbis explicitly ask “Eizehu Chacham?”.
In the midrash – the rabbinic commentary – Sifre Devarim, on the book of Deuteronomy, the question stands alone. There a convert, Arius, asks the great scholar Rabbi Yose, “Eizehu Chacham?”  His answer? “Ha-m’kayem talmudo” – the one who establishes their learning.
Again the meaning is slightly obscure. It can be read two ways: either that wisdom is about the ability not just to learn, but to retain learning, or that it is about the ability to help others, to establish learning in others.
Whichever way we read it though, the message is that wisdom is about the long term. Wisdom is not about short term advantage but long term sustainability, not about the immediate win, but creating foundations for long term development.

Why am I talking about this today?
It feels as though every sermon in the last few months has been against a backdrop of a crisis in leadership, looking in on the insular game – for game, alas, is how it sometimes feels – of politics.
But what we want most from our leaders, and from our public discourse, is wisdom.

We cry out for wisdom.  Not that our leaders be the smartest, or the wittiest, the most confident, the sharpest, the funniest at the despatch box, the most strident – but that they have the wisdom spoken about by the rabbis.

It is this that we need.
The observation of the Chilcott report that the consequences of invading Iraq were foreseeable; the possibility that intemperate language about immigrants and immigration might lead to attacks on ethnic minorities; or that holding a vote on leaving the European Union might mean that we might leave the European Union.
What we want from our leaders is the wisdom of Tractate Tamid: “Ha-ro’eh et ha-nolad”: The ability, desire, to see that which is born – to think through consequences.

The selfish refusal to listen, the rejection of expertise, over-reliance on dogma and assertion, an ugly thuggery and abuse of opponents.
What we want is the wisdom of Pirkei Avot: “Ha-lomed mi-kol Adam”: the humility to listen to one another, to understand that most things are complex.

We know that the questions that now face us all are not ones with easy answers – we need plans for a generation.  What we require is the wisdom of Sifre: “Ha-m’kayem talmudo”: The ability to think of long term sustainability not short term gain.

We end this week with a new team of leaders – a new Prime Minister, a new government.  Of course we want them to be strong and honourable.  If they are rich, good for them – even better if it is the richness of Ben Zoma.
But most of all what we need of our leaders as we enter this new phase in British political life, is that they be wise.  That they work through consequences, learn from others, think about the long term.
In these uncertain times, we can only hope that the answer to “Eizehu Chacham?” might be “Those who lead us”.