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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse 1

We are at the beginning of Chapter Four, and one of the great sayings, here in the Chabad translation:

Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated: “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.”
Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated, “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.”
Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated: “If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you”; “fortunate are you" in this world, “and good is to you” in the World to Come.
Who is honorable? One who honors his fellows. As is stated: “For to those who honor me, I accord honor; those who scorn me shall be demeaned.”

It’s a marvelous saying, and uses the reversal technique (which we have seen before) particularly well (although the proof texts are a little weak, frankly).

Unfortunately, Ben Zoma was insane.

It seems as if I may not have told the story of the Four Who Entered Paradise. Have I? Well, if I have already told it, settle down, I’ll tell it again. It’s worth telling again. It’s the inspiration (I think) for the novel As a Driven Leaf, and could just about be an inspiration for a play, if I could come up with a setting that worked for me. Anyway.

There were four who entered Paradise. Ben Azzai was one, Ben Zoma the second, another was the third, and the fourth was Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Akiba said to the others, he said, When ye arrive at the stones of pure marble, don’t cry out ‘water, water!’ says he, for he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight, that is, the presence of the Divine.

Ben Azzai took one look and died.

Ben Zoma took one look and went mad.

The other one became a heretic (which is why we don’t mention his name in the story, not to speak ill, although for a hint, his first initial is E and the second letter is lisha Ben Abuyah).

Rabbi Akiba departed unhurt.

That’s the whole of the story, which is written in the tractate Hagigah, page 14b. It is clearly a strange and unsatisfactory story.

Why were the four of them going to Paradise? What is meant by paradise? Are they actually going someplace, or is the journey a metaphor for deep learning? Did the three get in to Paradise or just look in from the border, as it were. How did Rabbi Akiba know there would be marble that looks like water? What differentiated the four, as they were all known for both piety and learning before this incident? What was the nature of Ben Zoma’s madness? How did this terrible experience affect Rabbi Akiba, who was unhurt in some sense, but must have lived with the memory of it?

Most of all, why did the Divine allow the entire thing to happen? What is there to learn from the story? If the lesson is to stay the hell out of Paradise, what is Paradise for? If the lesson is Rabbi Akiba was extraordinary, then what are we to make of the teachings of the rest of the Four?

Wisdom is learning; Strength is restraint, wealth is sufficiency, and honor is in the honoring. These are terrific lessons. I love these verses, and in particular, I love the way that they allow anyone to be wise, anyone to be strong, to be rich, to be honorable, because those things are not gifts or circumstances but choices.

And yet, Gentle Reader, if you were to make the choice to find wisdom in learning, to find strength in restraint, if you were to find richness in what you have and honor in the way you treat your fellow man, if you were to do all of that, like Ben Zoma did, and then you were to enter Paradise…

Is it not enough?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Paradise, to those who have never been, seems like madness.


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