Thursday, July 23, 2009

How to Acquire Wisdom

In Mishlei (13:10) the verse says, "Only by willfulness is strife fomented; but wisdom is with those who take counsel."

The Vilna Goan tells us that "Only by willfulness is strife fomented" is referring to someone who is unwilling to budge from the understanding that they achieve through their own learning. Someone who specifically needs to always be right is a person that is always causing strife, because they are never willing to hear the other opinions involved. On the other hand the phrase "But wisdom is with those who take counsel" means that the true way to acquire knowledge is to take advice from everyone. A person must listen to every opinion with an open mind, in Torah learning, before coming to a final conclusion. This is what the Mishna in Pirkei Avos (4:1) means when it says, "Who is wise? Someone who learns from every person." The Vilna Goan tells us that true wisdom is found by those people who are always asking for other people's advice.

The Meiri on this mishna in avos tells us that in order for a person to truly learn they need to approach the subject they are learning without haughtiness and assumed authority. For example, a person should never say to themselves, "How can I learn anything from so and so." A person should view every person as having something to offer them and then they will truly be able to learn and acquire wisdom.

However, the Meiri brings up a Gemorah that seemingly says the opposite of this teaching. In Chullin (18B) there is a discussion about what Rav and Shmuel said about a certain type of animal slaughter and whether it was kosher. Rav Yosef comes and says what he heard was the teaching of Rav and Shmuel on the subject. However, the Gemorah goes on to tell us that Rav Zeira ate meat that would be unkosher according to Rav Yosef's understanding of Rav and Shmuel. When this was pointed out to Rav Zeira he said, "Who says Rav and Shmuel says this? Yosef the son of Chiya?!?! He learns from anyone." When Rav Yosef heard what Rav Zeira said he was very upset and he exclaimed, "Did I learn this teaching from just anyone?! I learned it from Rav Yehuda!" This Gemorah seems to be saying that one should not learn from anyone, but only recognized scholars. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction?

The Meiri tells us that it is possible to say that in specific areas there are always people that one should turn to for answers. For example, if there is a talmud of a Rabbi, that talmud most likely knows what his Rebbe said better than some random guy. That is the point of the Gemorah, that in a specific area there are some people better to listen to than others.

The Mishna in avos, says the Meiri, is different. The Mishna in avos is giving a general rule for how to find a person that is an expert in a certain area. A person needs to be willing to listen to all people because an expert might be found in the most uncommon of places. For instance, who would have thought that a boy that went to a modern orthodox high school in Skokie, Illinois would become Rav Nosson Tzi Finkel? The point of this Mishna is to teach us not to judge a book by its cover, rather we must learn from everyone. This will allow us to find all the wisdom that is available.

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