Who is Wise?

A few years ago, in honor of someone who had recently passed, my high school students and I studied Mishnah Avot together. For the first five minutes of each class, we would read and discuss one Mishnah, and I would challenge the students to somehow internalize the text and apply it to their own lives.

At the beginning of Chapter 4, we entered into an especially interesting conversation. In this Mishnah, Ben Zoma starts by saying, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.”

“I think what this is saying is that if my parents were smart, they would learn from me,” one student joked in response.

“No,” answered another, “I think it’s saying that in order to be ‘wise’ we have to learn from our parents, no matter how old they may be.”

“What it’s saying,” countered a third, “is that no one knows everything even if we all think we do.”

At that point, the room was silent as everyone paused for a minute to reflect on that idea. This, I thought, was an especially insightful and true comment, and clearly the students did too (silence was a rarity in that class). “No one knows everything even if we all think we do.” It was so simple and, yet, so true.

Yes, parents should learn from their children. Yes, children should learn from their parents, but what Ben Zoma is saying goes beyond that.

This reminded me of another source of wisdom, Bill Nye the Science Guy who said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” Again, so simple and yet so true.

Of course everyone knows something I don’t. This was made even more clear to me recently while renovating my house. Although I consider myself to be fairly educated and knowledgeable, this process of renovation introduced me to an entire field about which I knew nothing. When the electrician told me he had finished wiring the basement and asked me to go check, I walked around for a few minutes so that he would think that I was actually checking his work, but I had no idea what I was checking. I didn’t know if he was really finished, and I didn’t know if he’d done anything properly. And, yet, I tried my best to pretend that I knew as much as he did about this subject (when really I knew nothing at all).

Bill Nye was right, but my student was more right. “No one knows everything even if we all think we do.” For several decades of my life, I measured myself by what I knew, and all it took was one day to prove to me how much I didn’t know.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld wrote, about this Mishnah, “At its simplest level, the message is that one who seeks wisdom wherever it may be found is the one most likely to acquire it. He or she is willing to ask anyone and everyone. He is not so conscious of his own reputation as to refuse to ‘lower’ himself to seek knowledge from someone not as important or credentialed as he.”

Of course. How can we learn anything without the cognizance and recognition that others may know more than us? And not just the teacher…everyone. Everyone knows something we don’t know because everyone has had different experiences, and all we have to do in order to learn from those experiences is to recognize what others can offer and be open to it.

Learning, especially the learning of Torah, is a very personal experience. When we learn Torah, we each bring our own prior experiences and perspectives. Those experiences and perspectives act as a lens and help us to interpret and make sense of what we learn. No two people share the exact same experiences. No two people have the exact same perspectives, and no two people will have the exact same reading of any text.

Through this conversation with my students, I was better able to articulate something that I had believed for a while. In this specific situation, I may have been the teacher. I may have had more academic degrees and more life experience than these students (maybe even all of these students combined), but I learned something from them every day. Through my learning with these high school students, I saw the text in new ways which allowed me to become a better teacher and, I believe, a better person.

As I turn my energies now to the field of adult education, this particular Mishnah is easy for me to apply to my life: I look forward to learning with and learning from so many more sources of wisdom – knowing that each person I meet knows something I don’t, and if I am lucky, they will share it with me. All I need to do is be open to learning.

About the Author
Dr. Sarah Levy holds a Master of Jewish Education and Certificate in Day School Education from Hebrew College as well as a Certificate of Advanced Jewish Studies as a graduate of the Pardes Educators Program. She has also earned a Doctorate of Education from Northeastern University with a Certificate in Jewish Leadership Studies. She has over twelve years of experience in the field of Jewish education, including experiential, supplemental and day school education. After teaching for the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD for the past three years, she now lives with her family in Denver, CO where she teaches for Denver Jewish Day School, coordinates a synagogue high school educational program, is the director of adult education for the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education, and develops Jewish Studies curriculum for different programs locally and virtually.