“Ben Zoma said: ‘Who is wise? One who learns from all people, as it is said (Psalms 119:99): ‘From all those who taught me, I gained understanding’” (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).

At first glance, this statement from Mishneh [Pirkei] Avot seems to be a sage, yet simple, path to wisdom. It can be rephrased in many ways, covering diverse but important messages: There’s something to learn from everyone. Make the most of your education. Never underestimate the knowledge you gain from the people around you.

As we go through the frenetic-pace of modern life, it often feels as if we are caught in a deluge of information. Facebook and other social media sites are full of would-be philosophers and “support blogs” can be found for just about any issue. So how should we apply the words of Ben Zoma in order to gain wisdom?

This question may be answered by looking at the example of Moses. Not long after the Children of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai, Moses was approached by Jethro, his father-in-law, who gave him advice about how to lead and manage such a large group of people. Jethro advised Moses to create a hierarchy of judges, with Moses serving as  the ultimate judge for those cases/questions that could not be resolved by others.

Jethro was a man with an interesting background. When Moses first met him, Jethro was a priest of Midian, a leader in a nation of idol worshippers. Moses could easily have dismissed Jethro’s advice and assumed that guidance from the world of idol worshipers would be unacceptable for the newly-crowned Israelites. Moses, however, did not hesitate to take Jethro’s advice and apply it to the needs of the Children of Israel and the path set forth for them by God.

Putting Ben Zoma’s advice into practice requires recognizing wisdom, even when it comes from an unexpected source, and to use that wisdom to enhance Jewish life.

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