Who is Wise? Pirkei Avot 4:1

Pirkei Avot 4:1: Ben Zoma says, who is wise? He who learns from every person. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.”

There are three teachings of the sages that focus on the definition of the wise person and begin with the words, “Who is wise?” The first is, “Who is wise? He who learns from every person,” from our mishnah. The second is, “Who is wise? He who sees that which is being born.”[1] And, the third is, “Who is wise? He who knows his place.”[2]

These three teachings parallel the three sefirot of the intellect: Chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and da’at (knowledge). Thus, the three definitions of the wise person constitute an inter-inclusion of the three intellectual sefirot (chabad) within the sefirah of wisdom itself, answering the question of “Who is wise,” from three different aspects of wisdom.

“He who sees that which is being born” reflects the aspect of wisdom that lies within wisdom. The wise person sees how creation—himself included—is being born, i.e., comes into being from nothingness at every moment.[3] This ability to see the nothingness out of which being is emerging infuses one with the attribute of self-nullification, the inner dimension or experience of wisdom. This is alluded to by the verse, “And wisdom will be found from [the ability to see] nothingness.”[4]

“He who knows his place” reflects the attribute of understanding within wisdom. Understanding is associated in Kabbalah with the dimensions of space, following the verse, “And where is the place of understanding.”[5] Relatively, this is the root of being within wisdom (as opposed to wisdom itself, which is from nothingness, as above). The being of space that the understanding of wisdom refers to is rectified being, since it nullifies itself to its root and “knows its place.” Thus, this is the one who is wise by knowing his place.

Finally, “He who learns from every person,” the description of the wise individual in our mishnah, reflects the attribute of knowledge within wisdom. Knowledge is considered the soul—or the inner dimension—of the sefirah of tiferet (beauty), which is multi-faceted. Likewise, the attribute of knowledge captures the multi-faceted characteristics of “every person.”

The three descriptions of the wise person also parallel the three festivals of pilgrimage to Jerusalem: Pesach, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot.

“He who sees that which is being born,” parallels the festival of Pesach, when the Children of Israel were born and became a nation. In addition, at the beginning of Moses’ mission, God told him, “When you take the nation out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain,” referring to the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Thus, the Jewish people became the wise person who sees that which is being born—in this case, the Giving of the Torah that was born from the Exodus from Egypt.

“He who learns from every person,” parallels the festival of Shavu’ot, the holiday that celebrates receiving the Torah and studying it. Every Jew has a portion of the Torah. In fact, the name Yisrael is an acronym for, “There are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah” (יֵשׁ שִׁשִּׁים רִבּוֹא אוֹתִיּוֹת לַתּוֹרָה).[6] This means that each of the 600,000 soul roots of Israel has its own letter, its own individual teaching in the Torah. The truly wise person knows that it is not sufficient to learn Torah exclusively from sages. Instead, every individual has to learn from every Jew—from his unique letter in the Torah.

“He who knows his place,” parallels the festival of Sukkot, the holiday that celebrates the great harvest of all the food for the winter being gathered into its place. During the Ten Days of Return (Aseret Yemei Teshuvah) that precede Sukkot, we are engaged in a return to God. But, it is only on Sukkot that we gather ourselves and reach our place. Sukkot is, “the time of our rejoicing”—rejoicing in having found our place in the sukkah under the wings of God’s Divine Presence.

[1]. Tamid 32a.

[2] Reisheet Chochmah, humility c. 7 following Avot 6:6; also Sanhedrin 37a.

[3] As explained in Tanya c. 43.

[4] Job 28:12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Megaleh Amukot 186.

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