QUESTION: The Gemara relates that Alexandrus Mokdon -- Alexander the Great -- posed ten questions to the Ziknei ha'Negev, the Elders of the South.
One of the questions that he asked was, "Who is a Chacham (a wise man)?" The Elders answered, "Who is a Chacham? He who foresees what will be." The MEFARESH (DH ha'Ro'eh) explains that a wise person understands, based on his wisdom, what will happen in the future, and he exercises appropriate caution.
Alexander asked further, "Who is a Gibor (mighty man)?" The Elders answered, "Who is a Gibor? He who conquers his Yetzer ha'Ra."
Alexander continued and asked, "Who is an Ashir (a rich man)?" The Elders answered, "Who is an Ashir? He who is happy with his portion."
Why did Alexander ask these questions to the Elders, and what was the significance of their replies?
ANSWER: The MAHARSHA (printed in the EIN YAKOV) writes that Alexander's intention in asking these questions was that the Elders should be forced to praise him. Alexander considered himself to be wise, since he was an astute philosopher and a disciple of Aristotle. He considered himself to be mighty, because he was a great warrior who had conquered many lands. He had accumulated a massive amount of wealth through all of his conquests.
However, the Elders explained to him that he, in truth, did not possess any of these great attributes. Their replies about wisdom, might, and wealth were based on the verse, "A wise man shall not pride himself in his wisdom, and a strong man shall not pride himself in his strength; a rich man shall not pride himself with his wealth. Rather, one should pride himself with this: contemplate and know Me..." (Yirmeyahu 9:22-23).
The verse says that the wise man should pride himself for using his intelligence ("Sechel") to enhance his knowledge of Hash-m. Through knowledge of Hash-m one attains true happiness in life and fulfills the purpose for which he was created. When Alexander wanted to be praised for his intellectual acumen, the Elders told him that the true scholar is one who can see the "Nolad." The Maharsha explains, in a novel interpretation, that this means that the person perceives and understands the ultimate purpose for which he was born ("ha'Ro'eh Es ha'Nolad" -- he sees the purpose for which he was born) -- to know Hash-m. This is the real Chacham.
When Alexander wanted to be praised for his military prowess, the Elders replied that his power does not prove that he is a man of might. True might is demonstrated only by one who is able to overcome his Yetzer ha'Ra (see Avos 4:1).
Similarly, the Elders told him that true wealth is not measured by the amount of money that one has earned (or plundered). Rather, the truly wealthy man is the one who is happy with his lot and enjoys the fruits of the labor of his own hands (see Avos ibid.).
The Gemara continues and relates that Alexander asked the Elders, "What should a person do to be accepted in society?" The Maharsha explains that with this question, too, Alexander was trying to make the Elders praise him, in the way that he later argued that one should love authority and power so that one can do good for others and win their favor and admiration. The Elders replied that, on the contrary, one who wants to be liked should despise authority and power. The Maharsha explains that although Alexander seemed justified in his claim that one can utilize power to help people and thereby become popular, the Elders argued that one should stay far away from a position of authority, because it is impossible to act justly to everyone without harming others.
When Alexander asked the Elders who was the wisest among them, his intention was to take revenge on that sage for suggesting answers that rejected Alexander's supremacy. They replied that they were all equally wise, and that they had all arrived at the same answers independently. Alexander asked them why they had rejected all of his arguments without fearing his superior strength. They replied, according to the Maharsha's explanation, that they answered his questions candidly because they knew that they were correct on every point. Alexander told them that even though they defeated him in debate, they are deserving of death, as the Gemara in Sanhedrin (39a) teaches that one who defeats the king must be thrown into a den of wild beasts.
The Elders defended themselves by pointing out that Alexander had promised them, before the debate, that if they would win, he would not harm them, and thus it would not be fitting for a king to break his promise.
Alexander then dressed the Elders in purple (Argaman) and placed gold ornaments around their necks as a sign of his deference to them. (D. BLOOM)


QUESTION: The Mishnah (5:1) teaches that after reciting three paragraphs of Shema, the Kohanim would recite three blessings: Emes v'Yatziv, Avodah, and Birkas Kohanim.
To what blessing does Birkas Kohanim refer? It is clear from the Mishnah later (7:2, 33b) that the Kohanim blessed the people ("Nesi'as Kapayim") only after the burning of the Eimurin. The Mishnah here, however, is discussing the daily procedure before the burning of the Eimurin!
(a) The ROSH explains that the Kohanim would recite a special prayer at this point, asking Hash-m to accept the Birkas Kohanim that they would recite later, after the burning of the Eimurin.
(b) The RAMBAM (in Perush ha'Mishnayos) and the RA'AVAD explain that "Birkas Kohanim" in the Mishnah here refers to the blessings of Modim and Sim Shalom. These blessings are referred to as "Birkas Kohanim" because the blessing of Birkas Kohanim in Shemoneh Esreh is recited during these blessings. (These blessings were recited now (even though the Shemoneh Esreh was not recited at this point) as supplications that Hash-m accept the offerings that the Kohanim would bring during the day.)
(c) TOSFOS in Berachos (11b, DH u'Virkas) and the BARTENURA explain that the Kohanim would recite the words of Birkas Kohanim at this point, without performing Nesi'as Kapayim (raising the hands). Later, after the burning of the Eimurin, they would perform Birkas Kohanim with Nesi'as Kapayim.