Ben Zoma from the Ethics of the Fathers

    June 2008            
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Who Is Wise?

By Lazer Howard

"Who is wise?" asks Ben Zoma in the fourth chapter in the Mishnah in Perkei Avot, the classic ethical guide written by the sages of the Talmudic period. And he goes on to answer his own question, "He who learns from every person..."

Most people would explain the meaning of Ben Zoma's teaching is that since each person is imbued with a special talent or gift of exceptional perception in some area that was given to him by his Creator, and although this person may be ignorant in other matters, we would be considered wise if we were to learn from this man and not reject him as being a complete ignoramus. Simply put, each person possesses something from which we may learn; no man should be discarded as having nothing to teach.

This explanation parallels real life. We find that we must rely on people whose expertise in one field or another excels ours, even though we may possess skills or knowledge in one field that this person does not possess. As an example, we seek out medical advice from a doctor, in spite of the fact that our neighbor is an outstanding and recognized expert handyman, and conversely we ask our handyman neighbor for his advice when we must fix or replace a water faucet and not our doctor. Sometimes a handyman or a doctor will ask us for advice in our personal specialty. Obviously because each person has his specialty so we only ask in accordance with the specialty. I doubt though if this is the advice that the great sage of the Talmud, Ben Zoma meant to give to us; I figured this out on my own. Great sages like Ben Zoma did not come to teach us what we could have learnt by ourselves!

It could be that Ben Zoma was talking about not the simple and practical aspects of life, but rather how to live life and how to keep one's self away from doing evil, as I shall explain:

As we leave our parents' home and go out into the world to live our own life, we find that there are many people and individuals who have different and contrasting life-styles. Many of these life styles challenge our concept of how to live a good and proper life. Who are we to listen to? How are we to evaluate new ideas?

As we look around, we see that the ethical standards and moral values in the secular world are constantly changing. What was once abhorred is now elevated. We find that same sex marriages are the rage of the media; promiscuous and adulterous life styles which were once punished by society are now considered acceptable and in some cases even the norm, whilst a simple plain monogamous marriage, having one faithful marital partner for life, has become a rarity. The value of remaining a virgin until marriage and being true to one partner has lost its value in today's pop society.

There are many exponents of various styles of life and a young person (along with many older people) does not know to whom to listen. When they go to the movies or watch the television, the values of romance and of living 'modern' are presented in a convincing artistic and emotional manner to convince the individual to also become 'modern'. Who should we listen to?

Ben Zoma addresses this question: "Who is wise? He who learns from each person." Only an already wise person can learn from every person, but not a plain person who has not yet reached a level of wisdom like a sage. A doctor knows who is a good doctor and who is a quack just like a plumber knows who of his contemporaries are competent and who are not. When we need a good doctor or plumber, we don't just call the first name we see in the telephone directory, we ask our friends and neighbors who they recommend. This is our way to compensate for not possessing the necessary wisdom in this profession to make a good choice by ourselves. We neither possess wisdom of a sage, nor wisdom of a specialist.

The same is true of how to live life and what 'life-style' to adapt. To be able to make a proper decision we must be wise to begin with or we may fall into a life style that is problematic. If we recognize that we are not indeed wise in all manners, we will seek out an expert and perhaps more important shun the influence of the street and the media. The sages of the Mishnah knew what the proper values for living a good life are. They are included in the teachings of the Pekei Avot and the Talmud, but we need a guide to teach us.

This is what Ben Zoma is teaching us: "Who is wise? One who learns from each person." Only an already wise person can learn from each person. A person who has not reached the level of being wise can not learn from each person since he is not yet wise like a sage, he may learn the wrong thing. If we are not wise in understanding the moral and ethical ramifications of various life styles, then how can we permit ourselves to be influenced by the media? It is possible that we may accept such behavior as being proper and cause ourselves great damage.

A person who is already wise, he can learn from all persons, even from the perverts and homosexuals. But we who are not yet wise would be wise to distance ourselves from these people and spare ourselves of pitfalls that such life styles bring.


from the June 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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