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Ben Zoma Said: Who is Wise? One who Learns from Every Man

One time my father was driving home from an important meeting in Rhode Island with my uncle Paul and a friend of theirs named Maier Zlotnik asked them to give a lift to a friend of his named Debbie who had been at the meeting.  He said taking Debbie would be no trouble and he would have done it himself but he had something he had to do. So my father agreed.

It became obvious very soon that Debbie had some sort of severe mental illness and Maier Zlotnick had unloaded her on them like a hot potato.  When my father stopped to fill the car with gas she would get out of the car and walk around the gas station, refusing to get back in the car, and very lightly threatening self-harm or even worse.  What should have been a five hour trip from Rhode Island to New York City took fifteen hours.  Instead of talking about what they had to talk about they spent the whole trip trying to convince Debbie to get back in the car and to seek help from a psychiatric professional when she got to her apartment. It took an hour to get Debbie to even climb the two flights of stairs into her apartment. It was six o’clock in the morning when my Father and my Uncle Paul returned the rental car.

While they were waiting for the subway after returning it they discussed Pirkei Avot 4.1 “Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man.” with reference to the question: what does it mean to learn from every man.  What for example did it mean to learn from the cowardly manipulative behavior of Maier Zlotnik, who had unloaded the responsibility of caring for a mentally ill woman, in fact for her fate, on the two of them when they had things to do, without even telling them?  

Uncle Paul said: What Ben Zoma meant is that we learn from Maier Zlotnik one thing: don’t be like Maier Zlotnik.  Just as we learn from someone who climbs too far out on a tree, causing the limb to break, that you should not climb out so far.  And we learn from someone who doesn’t climb out far enough on a tree, so his family goes hungry because he gets no apples — do not fail to climb out far enough.  We do not have eyes everywhere.  We cannot try every thing.  The wise man uses the eyes and hands and lives of everyone, the ones who do right and the ones who do wrong — like that execrable Maier Zlotnik.  The wise man learns from every one.

My Father said: I do not think Ben Zoma meant that, although it is true, because he does not say the wise men learns from the behavior or the doings of every man. It says the wise man learns from every man.  What do we learn from Maier Zlotnik?  We learn that the world is such that sometimes we cannot bear the responsibility we have for others.  We learn that we sometimes cannot bear the responsibility for others, as he could not bear the responsibility for Debbie. We learn that sometimes we do not even have the courage to share what we know about our own failings, but we simply hand off people to others like problems for them to deal with.  We do not learn from Maier Zlotnik how we are different from him, and how we can do better than him by avoiding his sins and avoiding his mistakes.  We learn from Maier Zlotnik, if we are wise, how we are the same. 

Uncle Paul gave my father a look like he was being sold something as a bargain that he would have to pay a fortune later in repairs.  “That’s not what it means to learn from someone.  If everyone were the same, there would be no need to learn from anybody.  We would all know everything.”

“And that is what I learn from you, Paul.” said my father.  “Maybe what Ben Zoma really mean is not that the wise man learns from Maier one thing and from Paul another thing and from Ben Kaplan a third. Maybe the wise man learns from everybody means the wise man learns from the fact that there is an everybody: that there is a Paul, and a Maier, and a Ben Kaplan.  The wise man learns that the Holy One Blessed Be He made the human race multiple.”

“And Debbie?” asked Uncle Paul.

“The wise man learns from her that he is not wise.” said my father and their conversation ended with the arrival of the train: my father taking the express, and Paul the local.  “Because if we were wise we would have been able to help her.”

My father was right that they had been unable to help her, or perhaps just unable to help her enough: Debbie succumbed to her illness the following year.  This happened quite a few years ago, although not as many years ago as Ben Zoma identified the wise man as the one who can learn from everybody, and Uncle Paul and my father are both gone.   

א

בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר: אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּֽלְתִּי, כִּי עֵדְוֹתֶֽיךָ שִֽׂיחָה לִי. אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: טוֹב אֶֽרֶךְ אַפַּֽיִם מִגִּבּוֹר, וּמוֹשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ מִלֹּכֵד עִיר. אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵֽחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: יְגִֽיעַ כַּפֶּֽיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל, אַשְׁרֶֽיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ, אַשְׁרֶֽיךָ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, וְטוֹב לָךְ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְּכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: כִּי מְכַבְּדַי אֲכַבֵּד וּבֹזַי יֵקָֽלּוּ.

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