Do you believe it is possible to learn from everyone, even from someone whose behavior is unethical? I don’t mean to learn from them only negative lessons, for example, what not to do, or how not to be. I mean, instead, to learn exactly those things—what to do or how to be. Now, before you answer, especially if your initial inclination is to say, well, of course, it’s possible, consider this.
I knew a couple, very fond of the outdoors, who were working on their densely forested land one summer. They were clearing out underbrush, dead trees, that sort of thing. They were enjoying themselves enormously. When they grew hot and thirsty from their work, they scooped up and downed some water from a nearby stream. The water was cold, refreshing, perfect. The woman, who was a trained scientist, decided, for curiosity’s sake, to take a sample of the water for lab analysis.
Their day’s work completed, they started home. On the way, they saw something disturbing. A dead deer was lying in the water, its carcass rotting, upstream from where they had just drunk. The test results came back from the lab that had conducted the test: Not fit for human consumption. Dang! The couple never drank from that stream again. In this case, we see that it is not possible to get clean water from a polluted stream. The pollution affects all of the water.
So in light of this, let’s consider our question again. Is it possible to learn something positive, ethically good, from a morally flawed individual? Or, is the morally flawed individual like polluted water?
Simeon ben Zoma was a Jewish teacher who lived in the latter half of the first century CE. He died at a young age. Fortunately, however, some of his sayings are preserved in the book Pirkei Avot (The Sayings of the Fathers.) At the beginning of Chapter Four, for example, we find this: “Ben Zoma said: Who is wise?” He answers: “He who learns from every person.” Every person, mind you: good or bad; man or woman; young or old; religious or not. The list could go on and on, of course. Every person! How does this work? How could this possibly be right?
Let’s look at one example taken from a great Chasidic master, Zusya of Hanipoli. Rabbi Zusya lived in Ukraine in the 18th century. The teaching of Rabbi Zusya’s that I want to share wonderfully illustrates, so it seems to me, Ben Zoma’s maxim of learning from everyone; in this case, learning from a professional thief. I take the list of lessons learned as recorded in Hayom Yom (From Day to Day), a collection of sayings and customs compiled and arranged by day by the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Chabad. From a thief, Rabbi Zusya tells us, someone who wants to serve God can learn seven things:
(a) A thief is modest. (That is, he goes about his tasks without fanfare.)Schneerson, Rabbi Menachem M. Tackling Life’s Tasks: Every Day Energized with HaYom Yom. Translated, elucidated & annotated with supplementary reflections & anecdotes by Uri Kaploun & Rabbi Eliyahu Touger.
(b) He is prepared to endanger himself.
(c) The minutest details are as important to him as greater considerations.
(d) He labors with great exertion.
(e) He works quickly.
(f) He exhibits trust and hope.
(g) If he fails the first time, he tries again and again.
In the 25th century BCE, we find a related idea expressed in a work of Egyptian wisdom literature by Ptahhotep:
Do not be arrogant because of your knowledge, but confer with the ignorant man as with the learned…. Good speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found in the possession of women slaves at the millstones.The Maxims of Ptahhotep, no. 1
We can learn useful lessons from everyone. Doing so, however, begins with our believing that we can learn something from everyone.
All the best,