In one of the most telling passages of the Talmud, the sages famously taught that if a person is wise, then they have the capacity to learn from all people (Pirkei Avot 4:1). This paradigmatic “wise person” could have been measured against so many other factors: by age, by wealth, by the number of books in their personal library, by the number of degrees hanging on the wall, perhaps even by the ability to solve complex philosophical or societal problems; none of these were sufficient. Rather, it was the unique ability to look in to the hearts of others and listen to them—with intentionality—that the sages deemed worthy as an essential building block to true wisdom.
It is easy to gain teachers. It is easy to seek out gurus. But turning everyone into a teacher is a rare art. To be sure, this is not some moral relativism that attempts to suggest that everyone has the same intellectual and moral capabilities. There are individuals more worthy of being placed in the moral position of gaining students in the first place. At the same time, there is no individual that isn’t worthy of being called a teacher if we have the ability to identify their merit. It would be an affront to the Creator to suggest that one of the humans created in the image of God had nothing to teach us.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the founder of the preeminent pre-Shoah yeshiva Kelm Talmud Torah, had a beautiful way of explaining this teaching:
Every person that has a special feeling for a certain endeavor will be extremely sensitive when she sees any little thing having to do with that endeavor. For example: When a tailor meets someone he will immediately look at his clothes, the shoemaker – at the shoes, the milliner – at the hat. Similarly, a merchant will be very sensitive to any words or actions that will have an impact on his merchandise. Another type of person would not see or hear any of these things because his heart is not given to inquire and investigate anything from these matters because he has no desire for them…all of this, if one is not engaged in such activities will not notice them when performed by others. If this is the case, then one who “learns from every person,” behold, this is a great “merchant,” he trades in everything and thus he understands the necessity to learn from the other and thus is called “Wise.”
We can learn from others’ glories as we learn from others’ traumas. Sadly, pain is a constitutive feature of the human condition. London-based, Somalian poet Warsan Shire wrote:
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
Indeed, pain is everywhere. We can learn from how others respond to their challenges and how others persevere. We can also learn from how others work, love, thrive, even move. Sometimes it is in the smallest things that we can learn the most. British poet William Blake placed it the cosmic schema best:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
(Auguries of Innocence, I. 1-4)
There’s no person in the world who is uninteresting. Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has a unique perspective of the universe. If we don’t find someone interesting, it is our myopia at fault. We must take out the spiritual flashlight and look for the gems that are right before our eyes. And our souls.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.