Wednesday, January 25, 2012
"Who is wise? One who learns from every person."
- Ben Zoma, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1)
Throughout the existence of the Jewish people, we have long been enamored with intelligence. Just look at the disproportionate amount of Jews who have been awarded the Nobel Prize. However, intelligence by itself is not a supreme value; it can be used for either good or evil. Thus, the Talmud tells us, "The purpose of wisdom is to bring about repentance and good deeds" (Berachot 17a). In other words, if we're not using our minds to try to become better people, our intelligence really doesn't amount to much at all. Furthermore, Ben Zoma's excerpt from Pirkei Avot alludes to the fact that while a person's intellectual capacity is innately limited, wisdom can be attained by anyone. A wise person is not someone who graduated first in their class, but rather someone who is constantly trying to learn.
A person who genuinely values wisdom will seek to attain it wherever it can be found, regardless of the source. Although some people go out of their way to avoid learning from someone with whom they disagree, this will not lead to wisdom. Notice how Ben Zoma states, "One who learns from every person"; he does not mention any particular type of person. Even when dealing with people who are wrong or evil, at the very least, we can always learn what not to do. We should never limit our pursuit of knowledge to only those who are liberal or conservative, or religious or secular, or even only fellow Jews, but rather we should aim to learn from all kinds of people.
Perhaps this simple principle of learning from all types of people can remind us that there is infinite value in every human being. Each individual is uniquely created by God and possesses some type of quality from which we can learn. If this is the case for everyone, including non-Jews, how much more so should we learn from - and be good to - each other. Nitpicking all the personal differences we have with fellow Jews is not wise and can easily lead to indecent treatment of those individuals. As the verse from Tehillim states, "Reishit Chochmah Yirat Hashem" - wisdom begins with the fear of God (Psalms 111:10). And what is the primary demand of this all-powerful God (as articulated by Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, among others)? To act decently toward one another.