Excerpts from a talk delivered by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson on Shabbat, the 14th of Tammuz, 1980

Who is wise? One who learns from every person, for it is written, “From all my teachers I became wise, because your testimony speaks to me.”

(Avot 4:1, Psalms 119:99.)

When we go out into the world and look around, we do not only see that there is One who created the world ex nihilo, nor only that “there is a master to this residence.”1 Rather we see how every person, even every inanimate thing in the world is a testimony to G‑d, “your testimony speaks to me.”

Since “your testimony speaks to me”—in every thing and person in the world one sees how it is testimony to G‑d—therefore one “learns from every person,” without exception, since one sees in every person how they are a testimony to G‑d.

This is so to the degree that even in such a person who has no positive attributes—as the Talmud relates about Rabbi Elazer that “he met a person who was especially despicable”2—even in that person one sees the testimony to G‑d, and therefore one finds something to learn from him.

Accordingly we can understand the story about Rabbi Elazer: When Rabbi Elazer met this “person who was especially despicable” he said to him, “Worthless, how despicable is this man etc.” The despicable man responded, “Go and tell the craftsman who created me, ‘how despicable is this vessel that you created.’”

Ostensibly, this is not understood:

There is an explicit Mishnah where ben Zoma says “who is wise? One who learns from every person.” This included even someone who is especially despicable, even to the degree that the Torah of truth labels him “especially despicable,” i.e. he is without any good attributes—and more so, that was the actuality. Yet [the Mishnah tells us] that we must learn even from him. So why did the “despicable person” respond, “Go and tell the craftsman who created me etc.”? He should instead have said that there is an explicit Mishnah that says “who is wise? One who learns from every person” including a person who is “especially despicable”?

The explanation is that this is in fact what he did say: “Go and tell the craftsman who created me etc.” means, “Why do you not see the ‘craftsman’ who is here, in me? Why do you not see how I am a testimony to G‑d, in which case you would have found something to learn from me?”

It says in ethical and hasidic books that in every person you can directly see the Creator of that individual, because a person is comprised of elements that are direct opposites of one another—the four elements of fire, spirit, water and earth—and it is not understood how such opposite elements can be held together in one person. This forces the conclusion that there is a Creator of man who achieves this.

Similarly, we see revealed in the person “the power of the One who makes things wondrously,” which connects the physical and the spiritual, the soul with the body, as is mentioned in Shulhan Arukh. From this it is understood that this is a very simple idea that is relevant to everyone, especially as we say this also in the first blessings that we recite in the morning.

From this it is understood that in every person we can see the “craftsman”—that is, how that person is a testament to G‑d—and therefore we can learn something from everyone.

* * *

According to the above explanation we can also understand the initial thought of Rabbi Elazer when he said, “Worthless, how despicable is this man etc.”

Rabbi Elazer was counted among the “people of ascent” (בני עליה), therefore it is not possible to suggest that he needed testimony on G‑d. The whole concept of testimony only applies for something that is concealed. In the case of something that will be revealed, and certainly something that is already revealed, the concept of testimony does not apply.

And in the case of Rabbi Elazer divinity was all the more like “something revealed” as he was in the aspect of ascent, meaning that he not only witnessed the ascent but that he himself experienced it. So it is not possible to say that Rabbi Elazer required testimony on G‑d. Therefore all he saw is that this is a “despicable person” and he said “Worthless, how despicable is this man etc.”

The telos, however, is that the world should be a dwelling place for G‑d, and for that reason Rabbi Elazer was required to leave the cave and enter the world, and there Rabbi Elazer destroyed and Rabbi Shimon repaired, which demonstrates that we must not reject the world, but must make there a dwelling place for G‑d …

For this reason Rabbi Elazer subsequently regretted what he said, “Worthless, how despicable is this man etc.” As the Talmud continues to relate that after the “despicable person” said “Go and tell the craftsman who created me etc.” Rabbi Elazer “knew himself that he had sinned, dismounted from his donkey and prostrated himself before him and said to him, “I have sinned to you, forgive me etc.’” Ultimately Rabbi Elazer reformed his behaviour, as is related there in the Talmud.

Since there must ultimately be a dwelling place for G‑d we must see in each thing in the world how it is a testimony to G‑d, “Your testimony speaks to me.” The “craftsman” who is in each thing in the world [is apparent], and accordingly the person learns something from everything that he sees, [becoming] “one who learns from every person,” and even from inanimate things, as mentioned above in the name of the Baal Shem Tov.

And in order that one can learn “from every person,” from every person without exception, there must be [the aspect of] “Your testimony speaks to me.” If a person only learns one topic fully and then goes out into the world and sees something despicable, it may not necessarily be the case that this “despicable thing” speaks to the same topic that he studied. It may be that this “despicable thing” is relevant to an entirely different topic, and accordingly he does not see in it anything of “your testimony.” Accordingly, he learns nothing from this thing.

Whereas if he has [the aspect of] “Your testimony speaks to me,” then it becomes his speech, such that wherever he goes it “speaks to me.” When this is the case, then in whatever he encounters and in whatever he sees he will see how this is “your testimony,” and accordingly he will learn something from the encounter. Then he is a “wise person” who “learns from every person,” and from everything in the world.