The following is a historical analysis of the Baal Shem Tov’s cardinal teaching that one should learn something from everything he sees and hears.

Three Torah expressions guide a Jew to recognize Divine providence and a lesson in all that he sees, hears and experiences:

1. King Shlomo states: “Know Him in all your ways” (Mishlei 3:6).

2. The Mishnah states: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person” (Avos 4:1).

3. The Talmud states: Gam zu letovah — “This too is for the good” (Taanis 21a).

Concerning the Mishnah’s teaching “Who is wise...?” it is stated:

“Do not regard anyone with contempt, and do not reject anything, for there is no man who does not have his hour and no thing which does not have its place” (Avos 4:3).

In regard to the third statement (Gam zu letovah), the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of Chabad, encouraged us to “Tracht gut vet zain gut — Think good and it will be good” as a proactive and practical strategy for addressing difficulties and challenges (Toras Menachem, Vol. 10, p. 123).

A Single Message

The Talmud asks the following question:

What is a short verse upon which all the fundamentals of Torah depend? It is this: “Know Him in all your ways” (Berachos 63a on Mishlei 3:6).

In the HaYom Yom of the 7th of Tishrei, this verse is one of five essential principle verses whose beginning letters form the word teshuvah (repentance), one of the most integral parts of a Jew’s existence.

The Prophets: Insanity and Cobwebs

King Dovid asked G‑d why He created insanity: “What’s the good in seeing someone in torn garments walking in the street followed by children mocking him?”

G‑d responded, “You doubt the role of insanity. I will show you one day that your life will be spared solely in the merit of insanity.” Indeed, later in his life, King Dovid escaped from mortal danger by feigning insanity.

King Dovid then asked G‑d about the purpose of a spider’s existence. The answer became clear when King Dovid hid in a cave during his flight from King Shaul. Shortly after he entered, G‑d caused a spider to spin a web at its opening, leading King Shaul to believe that the cave had been unoccupied for a long time.

Once again, King Dovid’s life was saved by the very thing he not only viewed as useless, but even harmful! (See Me’am Loez, Torah Anthology onI Shmuel 21:14; 26:12) .

Iyov (Job) calls out, “From my flesh, I see G‑d” (Iyov 19:26). If we wish to truly experience G‑d, we need only look into our own life and events. They bear compelling testimony to the existence of a Higher Being Who is controlling it all.

The Mishnah

Yehudah ben Tema said, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to carry out the will of your Father in heaven” (Avos 5:20).

Chassidic thought expounds on the lessons learned from these animals, even though, interestingly, all but the deer are not kosher.

Why is that so? Perhaps it comes to teach us how vital it is to learn lessons from everything that we encounter. Even if something is not permissible for consumption and is viewed as impure, it can still teach significant lessons in the service of G‑d.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 21, p. 285

The Talmud

“If the Torah had not been given to us by the Al-mighty, we would have learned modesty from a cat and refraining from thievery from an ant” (Eruvin 100b).

Here again, non-kosher creations serve as guideposts for us in moral and proper conduct.

The Talmud further relates:

“Even as he is breaking into another’s property, a thief calls out, ‘G‑d, please help me!’” What does that teach us? Although his act is immoral, he relies nevertheless on G‑d for his success (Berachos 63a). So, too, should we be as reliant on, and comforted by, G‑d’s Presence in everything we do.

The Commentator Rashi

Rashi once happened to observe a non-Jewish princess riding a horse in an immodest manner1 while wearing a certain type of apron. He wondered why G‑d had sent him in her direction just to witness such a scene. Only after he wrote his commentary on the Torah portion of Tetzaveh dealing with the High Priest in the Tabernacle did he discover the reason for this sight. The Kohen Gadol wore a similar kind of apron, and Rashi realized that seeing this helped him properly describe the attire of the High Priest. This way, Jews throughout the generations could properly visualize and understand this particular garment in the priestly attire.

This explains Rashi’s conduct of utilizing even something seemingly negative from which to draw a Torah lesson. When introducing his commentary of the High Priest’s apron, Rashi employs an unusual expression: “My heart now tells me” [that G‑d showed me the princess on horseback to suggest a way to describe the apron].

It is only from the essence of the sublime soul force known as the Yechidah, the source of every Jew’s soul which is not affected by any concealment and which dwells in the heart of man, that Rashi was able to gather the strength to make use of an uncomfortable scene such as this in order to enhance one’s service of G‑d. He thus utilized the experience to offer a clearer understanding of this particular detail of G‑d’s Torah.

See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 26, pp. 198-199

The Baal Shem Tov’s Contribution

The Baal Shem Tov taught his chassidim an unlikely lesson in our service of G‑d from the carving of a cross. His pupils had observed a gentilecarving an image of a cross in the ice. The Baal Shem Tov, who saw G‑d’s hand in every moment of every event, commented, “Look what can happen when there is coldness, indifference. The frozen river symbolizes human insensitivity. It was only the freezing of the river that enabled the cross to be seen and provide a lesson for the students: that coldness and indifference is the antithesis of what a Jew stands for” (Toras Menachem, Vol. 35, p. 129).

The question may be asked: If the importance of finding meanings and lessons in all one sees is conveyed throughout Torah and the Rabbinic writings, what unique insight does the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings bring regarding our need to be aware of and to learn from our daily experiences?

The answer is that the Baal Shem Tov would expound on the deeper and more sublime interpretation of these providential occurrences. This is the meaning of pirush HaBaal ShemTov (“the interpretations of the Baal Shem Tov”).He actually delineated and revealed a whole new concept and mystical approach to that which may have been understood previously as just a simple idea (Commentary on Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah, ch. 1).

The Baal Shem Tov elucidated and expounded on this concept, applying it to every element of our universe, even that which outwardly seems to be contrary to Torah: as discussed, the actions of a thief and the carving of a cross.

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe

Commenting on the words of our Sages, “Who is wise? He who learns from every person,” the Previous Rebbe conveyed in the name of his father that one does not have to be wise to be studious, i.e., “a learner,” for learning is the very definition of the level called “man” (adam): a man is someone who learns, and one who does not learn is not a man. But he who learns from every person is wise; that is, a wise man is he who finds something good to learn from every person.

Once, during Simchas Torah, a Torah scroll was removed from the Holy Ark for the reading of the last portion in the Torah, VeZos HaBerachah. Upon removing the mantle and opening the Torah scroll, however, the reader discovered that it had been rolled and prepared to be read from the very beginning of Bereishis! The entire scroll had to be rerolled to its proper place at the end.

During the Yom-Tov meal, the Previous Rebbe commented, “The teachings of the Baal Shem Tov concerning Divine providence are well known. If the Besht were present, he would rejoice because it was predestined from time immemorial that specific individuals should utilize their strengths to roll the Torah scroll [on that day].

“The mere thought that this was coincidental is the antithesis of Jewish belief!” (Sefer HaSichos 5704, p. 42).

The Rebbe: What Not to Learn?

How does one understand the words of the Mishnah stated earlier: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person?

The Baal Shem Tov explains: If there are those about whom we cannot find a positive trait from which to learn, we can learn from their conduct what to avoid and how not to behave. This, too, is considered as having learned from them.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches us that G‑d does everything for the good. So, too, even one who behaves badly has been sent to us to strengthen our ability and commitment to shun evil (Toras Menachem, Vol. 28, p. 238).

Another interpretation sheds light on how one is expected to learn from every person, even those who appear to have few or no virtues.

“Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” This comment is attributed to the tanna, Ben Zoma, who continues to quote, “Indeed, Your testimonies are my conversation” (Tehillim 119:99).

How does this verse serve as a proof to Ben Zoma’s teaching? If we don’t see any positive traits in someone, how are we to learn from this person?”

The Jewish people are a testimony to G‑d’s existence, as in the verse, “You are My witnesses, says G‑d.” When we see our brethren as a testimony to G‑d’s existence, we are able to see and learn from the good in them (Sichos Kodesh, parshiyos Korach andBalak, 5740).

The Talmud tells of Reb Eliezer who once met an “ugly” individual and remarked, “How ugly you are.” The man humbly replied, “Go and tell the Maker Who made me.” By pointing out the ugliness of this individual, Reb Eliezer tapped into the man’s inner essence and made him aware of a weakness in his spiritual status. With this sharp remark, he caused this individual to focus inward and conclude that it is “G‑d, my Maker, Who has made me.” This humbled him to the extent that he was now more of a vessel to receive the Divine flow of energy. Thus, even someone like this can be directed to the realization that everything comes from G‑d (Taanis 20a-b).

Ben Zoma was a tzaddik of the highest order, yet he is only referred to as the son of Zoma without mentioning his own name. This demonstrates his teaching that one should be humble, receptive, and learn something from everything. Interestingly, his first name was Shimon — accurately describing the importance of shemi’ah: listening and learning from others (Toras Menachem 5748, Vol. 3, p. 552).

Ben Zoma’s life exemplifies the need to learn from and realize the presence of G‑d in everyone and everything. He knew the value of meditating on the Divine light and the Divine message in all that he saw and heard. While he appreciated his solitude, he also valued his encounters with people and searched for deeper insight and meaning from every aspect of their conduct and behavior (Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 27, p. 324). Furthermore, Ben Zoma’s respect for the uniqueness of each person (and by extension, one’s appreciation for every creation) is expressed in his dictum, “Just as their facial features are not alike, so too are their opinions not alike.”

Likewise, the Previous Rebbe teaches that the word בדד, (badad), alone — as much of Ben Zoma’s life was spent — forms the acronym of the words of Proverbs (Mishlei) בכל דרכיך דעהו, “Know Him in all your ways” (Igros Kodesh of the Previous Rebbe, Vol. 1, p. 381).

The concept of applying one’s learning experiences into one’s practical life finds its origin in Talmudic writings. Often, after intricate and lengthy analysis, the Talmud pauses and asks, “What practical difference does it make?” Nothing should remain in the sphere of the mind. The most stimulating and intellectual teaching must be applied to practical life (Toras Menachem 5744, Vol.3, p. 1576).

The Rebbe’s Advice

The words of our Sages in the Mishnah are clear and concise. Thus, the Mishnah emphasizes, “Who is wise? He who learns something from every person.” The rule that the Mishnah establishes here is that the definition of a wise man is one who learns from each and every person. This means that if he is in the presence of ten people and from only nine of them does he learn a lesson, not only is he not considered great in wisdom, but he is not a wise man at all! (Toras Menachem 5745, Vol. 2, p. 984)

A Jew is a privileged member of the nation that the Torah describes as being wise and understanding. If, as the Mishnah states, a sign of wisdom is one who learns from every person, a Jew must live up to that condition. If he does not, he foregoes the honorable description and definition of being a wise person, and who would ever wish to forego that privilege? This very thought compels a Jew to learn from every person (Toras Menachem 5745, Vol. 1, p. 559).

A Novel Insight

The Rebbe explains:

The Baal Shem Tov often said that, “Everything one sees or hears is to be taken as a lesson in how to better serve the Creator.”

Our senses of seeing and hearing are the primary means by which we learn about and experience the world. It is for this reason that he specifically emphasized “seeing” and “hearing” (Kesser Shem Tov, ch. 127).

Furthermore, one can extrapolate that these two essential senses are alluded to in the names of the first two tribes of the entire Jewish nation — their very foundation — Reuven, which evokes “seeing” (re’iyah), and Shimon, which evokes “hearing” (shemi’ah).

Iyov was one of the first in Tanach to discover that one can learn about G‑d by observing the workings of his own body. He learned a Divine lesson in that which he “saw,” as he related, “From my flesh, I see G‑d.”

From the carefully chosen examples of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings on “seeing” and “hearing” mentioned above, a Divine message is further understood with the following discovery:

The profound impact of studying the inner dimension of Torah is evident by the usage of words “come and see” when attempting to prove a point —implying clarity and certainty. Conversely, in the revealed part of Torah, when the Sages wanted to offer proof on a given topic, the wording is, “come and hear” (Toras Menachem, Vol. 3, p. 74).

Our Sages teach that one cannot compare the impact of hearing to that of seeing.

Perhaps this, too, sheds light on the two primary ways one can learn a lesson in his Divine service. A deeper and more influential lesson — seeing — comes about through the study of Chassidus. For this reason, Chassidus teaches not only to learn from our mentors and teachers, but literally from everything and everyone one sees (and of course hears). The revealed dimension of Torah, however, focuses on hearing, a sense that penetrates the Jew far less deeply.

A Chassidic Tale

In a classic chassidic legend, a chassidic Rebbe overheard two drunkards conversing. One said, “I love you!” The other responded, “If you love me, tell me what’s hurting me!” The Rebbe excitedly rushed back to his disciples to introduce this new insight to them that would enhance the mitzvah to “Love your fellow as yourself”: “It is only when you feel the other’s pain,” he said, “that it can be said that you truly love them!”

Learning From a Thief

In the HaYom Yom for Iyar 3, we learn seven positive qualities from a thief:

1. He works quietly, without others knowing

2. He is ready to place himself in danger

3. The smallest detail is of great importance to him

4. He labors with great toil

5. He moves quickly

6. He is confident and optimistic

7. If he does not succeed the first time, he tries again and again.

Although a thief is involved in sinful behavior, our chassidic masters have been able to find merit in the attitudes and behaviors that bring him success.

Author’s Notes

The Rebbe would often reassure his listeners that the insights of Chassidus, as lofty as they may seem, find their origin in the revealed dimension of the Torah. The Rebbe taught that the inner soul (Chassidus) and its external body (Talmud, Midrash etc.) are dimensions of Torah that are inseparable. In the words of the Talmud, “The entire Torah was given through one shepherd” (Chagigah 3b).

Chassidus teaches that in addition to learning from our spiritual mentors and from examples in the realm of holiness, we can learn to better serve G‑d from everything and everyone, even a gentile carving a cross (the antithesis of Torah and Jewish belief) in the ice, or the way an insect traps and kills its food.

This bold novelty expressed in chassidic writings — to utilize everything one sees and hears as a practical lesson — is alluded to in the saintly words of King Dovid in his psalms. In fact, so close are the two messages — the revealed approach of the Talmud and Mishnah, etc., where we are told to learn from every person and teacher; and Chassidus, Torah’s inner dimension, where we are told to apply lessons from everything — that they are written side by side in the Book of Psalms. The first verse, “Each of Your commandments makes me wiser than my enemies” (Tehillim 119:98) is followed by the verse, “From all those who have taught me I have gained wisdom…” (Ibid.: 119:99).

Their proximity is consistent with the Rebbe’s teachings that the sequence of verses in Torah is also Torah, i.e., an instruction. Of the first verse, it is stated: “Whenever I was about to perform some commendable deed, I would study ‘my enemies’ in order to see how well they perpetrated their evil deeds. I would take note of their preparation, dedication and forethought, and that is how I would then perform the mitzvah.”

Furthermore, King Dovid’s inspiration for many psalms came from the persecution he suffered at the hands of his enemies. His broken heart inspired him to compose psalms, which the Zohar calls “the secret of wisdom.” Dovid would pray for G‑d’s deliverance by chanting these psalms. Fittingly, he says, “…Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies”: in reaction to the suffering he endured from his enemies, he brought an incalculable light into the world for us.

This represents the chassidic approach of “learning even from my enemies.” The second verse quoted above alludes to the ordinary approach of “learning from all who taught me.”

Everything in Torah is perfect and bears profound meaning. The verse describing the lesson to be learned “from my enemies” and that from the qualities of “my enemies” I can glean positive lessons for my practical behavior (as viewed in chassidic teachings), is verse number 98 of chapter 119 of Psalms.

The number 98 is significant in the Torah. In Devarim (ch. 28) the Torah lists 98 curses. These curses, explains Chassidus, are not intended as mere punishments, but rather as “blessings in disguise” which spiritually purge and refine a person, making him a fitting receptacle for even greater blessings from G‑d.”

Additionally, it is not by coincidence that the words that illustrate the positive message and Divine hand in everything are גם זו לטובה, “This too is for the good.” Even in the negative there is good to be found. The negative applies only to the external aspects of a being or creation, but its essence is only positive. The first letters of these three words, גם זו לטובה, form the acronym גזל, meaning theft (using this word in the general sense of invading another’s property). In other words, as stated earlier, even one of the most terrible and sinful acts such as thievery is replete with good and constructive guidance which we could all emulate, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.

Ironically, the word in Hebrew for “lesson” is lekach. The word lekach is also used for the piece of honey cake that we distribute to each other on erev Yom Kippur.

The two meanings of this word is striking. A lesson sincerely learned, observed, and internalized serves as a sweet experience in our lives.