My maternal grandmother, of blessed memory, used to say that if someone wants to give you something free, take it. If you can’t use it, she said, pass it on to someone who can. There is a lot of wisdom in my grandmother’s saying. She came by it in living her life. I doubt that she was familiar with the book Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), but what she suggested can be found there, albeit stated somewhat differently.
I keep the Chabad practice of reading one chapter of Pirkei Avot following the afternoon prayer service every Sabbath between Passover (spring) and the Jewish New Year (early autumn). This past Sabbath, we read Chapter 4. Since the book contains only six chapters, we go through it several times over the summer.
In Chapter 4, we find a couple of sayings of a man named Ben Azzai (Simon Ben Azzai). Ben Azzai was a student of the great scholar and sage Rabbi Akiva. He was never ordained, so he was never called Rabbi. Also, he never married, a choice that garnered him much criticism. Nevertheless, his contemporaries greatly admired his learning. They said of him that his death marked the end of the diligent students of Torah.
In Chapter 4, we find this saying of Ben Azzai: “Do not regard anyone with contempt, and do not reject anything, for there is no man who does not have his hour and no thing which does not have its place.” (Pirkei Avot, trans. by Rabbi Nissan Mangel.)
“…do not reject anything…for there is…no thing which does not have its place.” This idea is the same one contained in my grandmother’s saying. She believed that everything had a use either by herself or someone else, if not now, then later. While my grandmother’s saying was about the “thing” part of Ben Azzai’s teaching, I would like to draw attention to the “person” part.
Do you believe that every person you know has a place in your life? Is there ever anyone you can easily dismiss or in Ben Azzai’s words “regard…with contempt?” Consider the person who sweeps your street, the anonymous person who puts gas in your car. What about the woman who takes your coat when visiting a museum? What about the young man who waits on you at your favorite restaurant? What about the President of your country, or your Prime Minister, or the leader of the Opposition? What about your spouse or your children, or your pets? Finally, what about yourself? Is there ever anyone you can feel free to ridicule or hate or treat with disdain or scorn?
There is an interesting story that illustrates this point. It’s called “The Lion and the Mouse.” It uses animals as stand-ins for people. The story is in Me’am Lo’ez, a commentary on Scripture begun in 1730 by Rabbi Yaakov Culi. The book was written in Ladino and worked on by several different scholars over the years.
A mouse once inadvertently roused a sleeping lion by walking over its foot. “You lowly mouse,” cried the lion, “you deserve death for waking me!”
The mouse responded with a broken heart: “I know that I have done wrong, but I beg of you not to harm me and I will repay you one day.” The lion laughed at this offer. “Can a puny creature like you possibly be of help to the king of beasts?” But he let the mouse go.
Once, the lion went hunting and fell into a trap set by hunters. The lion roared an awesome roar that reached the ears of the mouse in its hole. “Surely the lion is in trouble,” said the mouse, “I shall go and save him.” He ran to the lion and began gnawing away at the net until the lion was freed.Quoted in Pirkei Avot, Compiled by Rabbi Yosef Marcus, Kehot, 2010, p. 120.
There are wise lessons contained in my grandmother’s saying, in the teaching of Ben Azzai, and in the story of the mouse and the lion. I am grateful for all of them.
The story about the lion and the mouse also allows me to share one of my favorite songs, written by the late South African composer and singer Solomon Linda. The song is known in English as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Here is a marvelous performance of it by Lady Smith Black Mambazo with Mint Juleps. The video is a little blurry, but the singing, now that’s divine.
All the best,