I just got back from a wonderful week at camp. As I shared two weeks ago, I find it a time to take a working break by putting myself in a different environment, engaging with a different population and having some time to focus on projects and plans. All of which I experienced.
It was also a time for learning. Jewish camp is not just Jewish because the rhythms of daily life are built around Jewish practice and tradition—the meals that are served, daily evening services, a full celebration of Shabbat, blessings before and after eating—but also explicitly built into the camp experience is Jewish learning. Time is spent doing some direct learning, albeit in an informal camp setting. As part of my role at camp, I helped with the teaching.
The camp’s education and program director and the faculty commission landed on a theme for the summer, a Jewish text that would guide life at camp and serve as a focal point of Jewish learning throughout the summer across every age group. The text for this year is Pirke Avot 4:1:
Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone. Who is strong? The one who is able to overcome their negative inclination. Who is rich? The one who is happy with their portion. Who is honored? The one who gives honor to others.
Pirke Avot (literally, “Chapters of our Fathers” but also sometimes translated as “Ethics of our Fathers” or “Teachings of our Fathers”) is an ancient text, part of the Mishnah which was promulgated around the year 200 CE. Unlike other parts of the Mishnah which delve into topics of Jewish law, ritual and practice, Pirke Avot is a collection of ethical aphorisms, a text of lived wisdom that is meant to serve as a guide for how we live our lives.
This text is no exception, and a wonderful example. The ancient Sage Ben Zoma lays out for us four qualities that we are to embody. The number four is probably not an accident—it is a number that shows up often in our Jewish practice. Four cups of wine on Passover, four ceremonial plants on Sukkot, four seasons, four directions, the prayerbook speaking of “the four corners of the earth.” Four is a number of totality, of wholeness, and the number four is meant to mean everything. Ben Zoma means that each person is to embody these all.
The assumption behind the text is that these are four attractive qualities. And I think we can agree that they are. The power in the text is how each quality is defined. It teaches, as I see it, that they should mean the opposite of what we assume they mean. For if we are to think about what is meant by wise, strong, rich and honored, in our initial reaction we may have a different idea of what Ben Zoma teaches.
When we think of wise, we may think of one who has a lot of knowledge, and one to whom others may look for guidance and teaching. But here the opposite is true. The wise one is the one who knows what they do not know, and are able to find a lesson or teaching in every experience and from any person. They are open to learning more, not assured that they know it all.
When we think of strong, we may think of one who is physically strong, yes, but also one who is emotionally and spiritually strong—one who has it all together and has figured it out. But here it is not the case, it is one who is able to manage the urge to do harm or manifest destructive behavior, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have it. It is one who is able to have a vision of how they would like to change, and have the strength to work for that change.
When we think of rich, we naturally think of having a lot of material goods. But here it is not necessarily having a lot of goods, but it is being grateful for what one does have, material or otherwise. “Happy” in this case does not mean “satisfied”—we can seek to have more and desire new things and experiences—but at the same time, we should be thankful for what we do have, focusing on what is rather than what isn’t.
And when we think of honored, we think of prestige that comes from success or leadership or position. But here again the opposite is taught: one gets honor by giving honor. If one is able to see the value and worth in every individual, then that person has demonstrated their own personal value and worth.
These are Ben Zoma’s four, and his definitions. And underlying all of these answers, the value that is a part of all of these qualities, is humility. That we need to recognize how we need to grow, and commit to do so. That we know that others have something to offer us, even if we may not know what it is. That we need to be grateful for not only what we know and what we have, but for that ability to learn and do more.
Camp is a particular time to manifest these things since time at camp is a time of building new community, trying new things, challenging ourselves to grow and developing new relationships. But it is a teaching that is not confined to camp, but one that can guide us at all times as we strive to be whole human beings.