Who is Wise?


Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As it is written: “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials (eidosecha) are my meditation.”[1]

Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1

It would seem that a wiser person is also a more critical person, since he has the insight to see his fellow for what he truly is. So why does Ben Zoma say “Who is wise — One who learns from every man”? Perhaps to become wise, a person should learn from everyone; but the wiser he becomes, would he not find less value in those inferior to himself?

One possible answer is that the wise man gleans positive knowledge and instruction also from negative traits and deeds. Thus, Rabbi Zusya of Anipoli learned seven things from a thief: a) What he does, he keeps to himself. b) He is ready to take risks in order to achieve his goal. c) The smallest detail is of great importance to him. d) He invests great effort and toil in what he does. e) He is swift. f) He is confident and optimistic. g) If at first he fails, he is back time and again for another try.[2]

Another, deeper perception of every man as one’s teacher is to be found in the verse from Psalm 119 quoted by Ben Zoma: “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials (eidosecha) are my meditation.” At first glance, only the first half of the verse pertains to our mishnah’s point. What pertinence does the fact that “Your testimonials (i.e. the mitzvot) are my meditation” have with learning from every man?

Indeed, the Hebrew word eidosecha, “Your testimonials,” from the root eid, “witness” or “testifier,” usually refers to the divine commandments, whose observance attests to G-d’s sovereignty over the universe and His relationship with us. But there is also another significance to the term—that it refers to each and every one of us. “‘You are My attesters (eidai),’ says G-d”[3] — every single individual, by virtue of his being, bears testimony to the greatness of his Creator.

It is in this context that Ben Zoma quotes the entire verse. “From all my teachers I have grown wise,” says King David, expressing the elementary lesson that to grow wise one must learn from every man. Furthermore, the wiser he became, the more teachers David had. Why? Because “Your testimonials are my meditation.”

True, wisdom enables one to see past the veneer of conduct and grasp the inner motives and desires of men. But the truly wise individual looks even deeper, beyond personality and character, to perceive the quintessence of humanity: man as a testimonial to G-d, Who created him in His image.

Every human being expresses another of the infinite faces of the Creator, and thus serves as a unique and unduplicated insight into the all-embracing, all-pervading source of all wisdom. It takes a truly wise man to look at his every fellow, including the externally corrupt and despicable individual, and perceive the testimony he bears about his Creator.

This is an excerpt from “Beyond the Letter of the Law” by Yanki Tauber published by The Meaningful Life Center.

[1] Psalms 119:99.

[2] From Hayom Yom, a calendar with quotations from the works and talks of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch, compiled and arranged by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn

[3] Isaiah 43:10


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