Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every person...
Who is strong? He who subdues his [evil] inclination...
Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot...
Who is honored? He who honors others...
Ben Zoma, "son of Zoma," was not called by his own name, Shimon, because he died at a young age and never received ordination. Machzor Vitri maintains that there were four sages named Shimon at the time: Shimon ben Zoma, Shimon ben Azzai, Shimon ben Nanass, and Shimon of Timnas. To avoid confusion, they were called by their fathers' names, or, as in the case of Shimon of Timnas, by his place of origin.
When Ben Zoma passed away, the expositors [of Torah] ceased.
In this Mishnah, Ben Zoma speaks of true and meaningful wisdom, strength, wealth, and honor. Ben Zoma is especially suited to discuss these attributes, since he possessed them all in the conventional sense:
Wisdom: "He who sees Ben Zoma in a dream should await wisdom."
Strength: Ben Zoma was known for his great ability in exegesis. Exegesis is associated with the part of the brain called binah (understanding and analysis), which requires gevurah, strength.
Wealth: Ben Zoma was very wealthy.
Honor: Possessing all of these attributes, he obviously received much honor.
R. Matya ben Charash said: Be first to greet every person; be a tail to lions and do not be a head to foxes.
Although if you exile yourself to a place of Torah you will be "a small fish in a big pond"--a tail to lions, better to do so than to stay in your own town to be a head to foxes.
Many explanations are given for this dictum.
• Better to be a humble follower of virtuous men than the chieftain of empty ones.
• If you will be a tail to lions--i.e., consider yourself subservient to the great ones--the Mishnah assures you that G-d will raise you up, since G-d raises the lowly to supreme heights; you will not end up being a head of foxes, but rather a head of lions.
• The lion embodies strength and therefore alludes to the realm of holiness; the fox embodies craftiness and thus alludes to the mundane.
• One who feels inadequate in the spiritual realm might say, "I will never be a 'head to lions,' so I might as well excel where I can, in the mundane realm." R. Matya therefore tells him: "Better to be a tail to lions, than a head to foxes".
• In spiritual matters, always look to those superior to you--be a tail to lions--and aspire to be like them.
The fox, however, is known to look behind itself. (This is why Samson used them in his attack on the Philistines, tying torches to their tails. For the Philistines reneged on their covenant with Israel, they "went back" on their word, like foxes, who look back.)
Thus, do not be a head to foxes--do not look back smugly like a fox at those beneath you in spiritual matters (to feel smug and complacent).
Better to live among those spiritually superior to you, even though by contrast you appear unworthy, than to live among those spiritually inferior to you, even though by contrast you will appear worthy.
Holtzberg Memorial Edition