The Mishna presents the core teachings of the Jewish sage Ben Zoma as a series of four paradoxes. The paradox is a common tool of Stoic teachers, and these four paradoxes are very Stoic in their nature. Ben Zoma’s teaching is presented as follows:
Ben Zoma would say:
Who is wise? He who learns from everyone. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise”;
Who is strong? He who controls his impulses. As is stated (Proverbs 16:32), “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.”;
Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has. As is stated (Psalms 128:2): “If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you”; “fortunate are you” in this world, “and good is to you” in the World to Come;
Who is honored? He who honors everyone! As is stated (1 Samuel 2:30): “For to those who honor me, I accord honor; those who scorn me shall be demeaned;”.
(Pirkei Avot 4:1)
In coming days I will be blogging on each of these paradoxes, digging into them, to see what we can learn.
The first paradox is that one who is wise, can learn from any man. Embedded in this teaching, is the virtues not just of wisdom, but also of justice. Justice involves viewing other persons equally, as we would have them view ourselves. (I will discuss this in more detain, in a blog on the virtue of Justice coming days). We must weigh the views of others objectively.
Simcha Ben Shmuel of Vitry in his commentary to this passage observes that that King David was himself characterized by his willingness pay attention to any man who came to teach him something:
A WISE MAN: It is he who is ready to learn even from his inferiors. With such readiness, if his inferior should present him with a wise view, he will not be ashamed to accept it and will not treat his words with contempt. This was characteristic of David, King of Israel, who said, “…I would pay attention to any man who came to teach me something”
(Simcha Ben Shmuel of Vitry).
This was also a characteristic of Moses when Jethro came to him with a Word of Wisdom, that he should share the responsibility of judging the people with the Elders (Ex. 18)
Rabbi Jonah, in his commentary to Ben Zoma’s saying teaches us:
The Gentile philosophers say that even if a person were to know everything [as it were], if he does not want to increase his knowledge, he is not a wise man but a fool…. On the other hand one who passionately loves to increase his wisdom, may be called a wise man even if he were to know nothing. Only this way can you attain true wisdom and discover the will of God. It is to this Ben Zoma is referring when he says that the wise man is he who learns from all men, that is to say, so passionately loves learning that he is ready to ask anyone when he has a question, even individuals with limited knowledge…. This may be compared to a man who lost a small object. Will he not hunt for it everywhere?”
He who is wise, will listen to what others have to say objectively, and exercise discernment, separating truth from error. As we read from Rabbi Meir:
“Rabbi Meir ate the date and threw away the seeds; he found a pomegranate, and partaking of the fruit, he rejected the rind.” (b.Chagigah 15b)
And as we read from Rambam:
“Accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” (Maimonides; Introduction to the Shemonah Peraqim)