This week we study the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos. The first Mishnah begins:

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every person, as it is stated: From all who have taught me I have gained wisdom for Your ennobling testimonies are my conversation. (Tehillim 119:99)

The Bartenura comments that the intention of this teaching is to convey to us that, “... this individual does not seek his own honor and does not hesitate to learn from people who are smaller (less learned) than himself.”

Knowing the intense specificity of Mishnaic language, which the Rambam describes as being “terse and all inclusive,” how can we assume that the words “from every person” refers only to smaller people; it must include also those who are greater than he is. (By writing “every person” he definitely included wiser people, if he meant only lesser individuals he would have clearly so stated!) Consequently, what new idea does Ben Zoma’s dictum convey to us, relating to learning from someone who is wiser or more learned? It would seem obvious that one would want to learn from a wise teacher!

When a Jew is taught that he should learn from others, it could present a problem, and he may resist for two opposing reasons:

(1) To learn from a smaller person will be difficult because it goes against the grain. It is against one’s nature to accept or receive teaching from one who is on a “lower” station or less knowledgeable.

(2) To learn from one who is much wiser or vastly superior in intelligence is equally difficult. The recipient argues that it is not possible to receive education from one who is immeasurably higher than himself. From a teacher who is relatively wiser, yes! But from the sage who is infinitely more sagacious — there is simply no common language!

[Interestingly, there are some cases of observance or custom which truthfully may apply only for those who are relatively “up to it,” and on the appropriate level. If they are not, it smacks of arrogance.

There is a story told by the Previous Rebbe, of a Chassid who was invited to eat at the table of the Rashab and proceeded to copy the Rashab when he ritually washed his hands. He saw the Rashab wash each of his hands three times before eating bread and he did the same. At that time the custom was to wash each hand only twice, as ruled in Shulchan Aruch. Today, of course, the common observance is to wash each hand three times. Later the Rashab remarked to him, that there was no purpose in “mimicking” if one is not truly at the level of more pious observance!]

To correct this hesitation of studying from others, the Mishnah states: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” When is one truly wise? — when he truly learns from everyone, those on his own level, those who are less wise than he, and those who are vastly smarter than he is. Despite the seemingly vast distance, he can and must learn from them also.

Ben Zoma brings proof from the verse, “From all who have taught me I have gained wisdom,” which is followed by a reason: “... for, (because) Your ennobling testimonies are my conversation.”

The word “Edosecha — Your testimonies,” used in this verse brings to mind the term “Edos — testimonies,” which is one of the categories into which the 613 mitzvos are grouped.

The corpus of the 613 commandments of the Torah may be divided into three general categories: Mishpatim (laws), Edos (testimonies or precepts) and Chukim (statutes).

Mishpatim are the laws which human intellect and social responsibility demand and prescribe.

Edos, the testimonies, are generally not logically deduced — they have no independent rationale — yet having been so commanded, they do make sense to us, because they take on a form of “testimony” and bear witness to certain particular themes.

The Chukim are statutes which are superrational. The Midrash puts it this way: “I have laid down a statute; I have issued a decree,” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:1) and the Gemara adds: “You have no right to criticize it.” (Yoma 67b) We must observe these commandments despite our incomprehensibility.

These divisions notwithstanding, the word “Edosecha” in our context does not limit itself only to one branch of the commandments, rather it is used in an all-inclusive manner. Chassidus explains that each of these terms, Edos, Chukim, or Mishpatim may also be used all-inclusively, to include all of the 613 commandments. Thus, the whole Torah and all its mitzvos may be referred to as Edos.

In the context of our Mishnah, which teaches us to learn from every person, this collective aspect of Edos may be very important.

Look at it this way. When some mitzvah or custom is an incomprehensible “statute” then clearly it makes no difference from whom you learn it. In any case it is a superrational act, and you can accept it from a less learned person or from a unfathomable genius; its validity does not depend on intellect!

When we speak of logical “laws,” on the other hand, because they are based on rationale and logic there will be a difference who the model is. It will be hard to accept such an action from one who is immeasurably lofty. We simply do not understand his reasons.

But when we view all Torah in the realm of Edos, we approach with a new directive. Here, we must learn from every person, no matter what his level is, from the lowest to the highest. For, Edos means “testimony” on something that you saw! No matter who you saw doing it, no matter what his intellectual level was! You don’t have to have any connection with the model. An example of this would be bearing “witness” on an act you saw happen. One can bear witness about idol worship — certainly the witness has no connection with so heinous a sin, yet his testimony would be valid.

Thus, Ben Zoma tells us that we must learn from every person, even the one who is way above us. For we learn in the form of “testimony”; we see and we accept. Surely Ben Zoma was aware that in Gemara we find some cases where the sages could not learn from those who were greater than they were; e.g. the classic epigram of the Talmud concerning Rabbi Meir: “... why was not the Halachah fixed in agreement with his views? Because his colleagues could not fathom the depths of his mind....” (Eruvin 13b) Nevertheless, Ben Zoma says: who is the true student, he who learns from every person including the loftiest ones. How?

The answer is in the verse: “Your ennobling testimonies are my conversation.” When all aspects of my “conversation” are viewed and accepted as “testimonies” then I can relate even to the loftiest level. We are not fathoming the inner essential depths of the rationalization — nor are we accepting it as a cryptical statute [which would not be in the realm of our meditative thought]; rather we are presenting each item as we see it, a clarification of facts, as an eyewitness bears witness and presents a clear-cut case. As such, all Torah and mitzvos and all our conversations bear witness.

This same congruity will be found in the Mishnaic dictum: “Let all your deeds be for the sake of heaven,” (Avos 2:12) and the proverb: “In all your ways acknowledge Him.” (Mishlei 3:6) True, there are many aspects to a person’s life, and a Jew’s Divine service is complex and diverse: Torah study, observance of mitzvos, prayer, business and worldly understandings, yet when they are all united under the umbrella and common theme of “for the sake of heaven,” and to “acknowledge Him,” then there is harmony and unity. Similarly, “Your testimonies are my conversation,” by viewing every mitzvah or dictum as an “eyewitness” — they are all equal and acceptable.

Can we add something to our understanding by knowing that the teacher of this dictum was Ben Zoma? The Gemara says:

If one sees a crowd of Israelites (Rashi: 600,000), he says “Blessed is He who discerns secrets,” for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other. Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on one of the steps of the Temple Mount. He said “Blessed is He that discerns secrets....” (Berachos 58a)

Ben Zoma was able to bear witness to the fact that one must learn from every person because he saw and measured and recognized the myriad levels of all Jews as they were gathered together, from the loftiest to the lowliest [as in fact it can be only when such large numbers gather].

One who wishes to be a true scholar must be the altruistic student who finds instruction everywhere and is not hesitant to learn from everyone; the lowest, and, even more so, from the highest.