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Parshas Toldos (5770)

Advice 101

These days hardly anyone I know ever asks others for advice anymore - especially when it involves personal life issues - and we certainly would never ask our parents!! (Gloria Steinem once quipped: “I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career”.]

And yet we find, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, that our forefather Jacob took advice from his parents Isaac and Rebecca about which girls he should or shouldn’t date – and this when he was already 63 years old! [see Rashi’s commentary to Genesis 28:9]

The truth is that advice has been much maligned in recent years – most people are just not into asking for advice - and the following quotes I have collected might help explain why:

Anybody can give advice – the trouble comes in finding someone interested in using it.

Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn't.

Both medicine and advice are easy to prescribe but hard to take.

Advice when most needed is least heeded.

People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.

“A word to the wise ain't necessary. It's the stupid ones who need the advice.” – Bill Cosby

“I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.” – G. K. Chesterton

Although asking advice of others is never easy – and it is even harder to actually follow it after we receive it – it is considered to be of paramount importance in Judaism. The wisest of all men, King Solomon, wrote in Proverbs 12:15: “The way of a fool is just in his eyes, but the wise man heeds advice”. And the Mishnah in Ethics of our Fathers 2:8 teaches: “The more [one asks for] advice, the more understanding [he will have]”.

Let’s try to understand why the Torah considers seeking advice from others to be so critical for our own personal growth. I believe that there are three important reasons for this:

(1) Asking advice from others gives us access to wisdom that we need to help us make the right decisions.

In listing the various stages in a person’s life at which he is most suited to a particular spiritual task, the Mishnah (in Ethics of our Fathers 5:25) writes that a fifty-year-old can offer proper advice. The Meiri explains this teaching as follows: The counsel of someone between the ages of 50-60 is invaluable since it combines the two elements necessary for good advice: experience and wisdom. One younger than fifty lacks the necessary life experience to offer sage advice, while one who is much older may have begun to experience decline of his intellectual faculties. So that if we want to get proper guidance when confronted with major decisions in life, it is absolutely critical to seek out the advice of someone older and wiser than ourselves.

This would be true even if we were to ask advice from a person who is ignorant of Torah knowledge. How much more so if the person sought after for advice is steeped in years of Torah learning with all the depth and wisdom that comes with it. (It is well known that in Bnei Brak, Israel, the lines outside the home of the great Rabbi and Rebbetzin Kanievski are filled with Jews who come from all over the world just to seek their blessing and sage advice.)

(2) A smart advisor can help us filter out the trivial stuff from the real issues.

The Talmud in Berachos 61a refers to the kidneys as a man’s “advisors”. The commentaries explain that the kidney is that part of the body which essentially filters and cleans the blood, getting rid of any waste matter and extra water. This is also a main function of advice – it helps us filter out all the “junk”, i.e. the unimportant and irrelevant issues, from the real problem at hand. Through seeking advice from others, we can eliminate so much confusion from our lives and achieve a sense of clarity when it comes to life’s big (and small) decisions. I can personally recall many times when I asked my Rebbe, HaRav Zelig Epstien ZT”L, for his advice about life issues, and, in a matter of moments, he helped me cut through all the shtuyot (the nonsense) to get to the core issues. Such is the power of a good advisor.

(3) We are often prejudiced by temptations and desires that blind us to the truth and therefore need the advice of an unbiased person.

Our tradition teaches that the Hebrew language (I refer here to Biblical Hebrew, known as Lashon HaKodesh, lit. the “Holy Tongue”) was created by G-d Himself, and that any two different Hebrew words which share the exact same letters didn’t just “happen” to be that way but are in some way connected to each other.

The Mystics teach us an amazing thing: The Hebrew word for a blind person, eevair, and the Hebrew word for skin, orr, are both spelled ayin-vuv-reish. The powerful lesson here is that “skin”, or the external appearance of a person or thing, often “blinds” us to its real inner essence. How many times do we make important life decisions based on how someone looks, falling in love with their “skin”, without seeing who they really are inside.

This is why is the Torah deems it so critical to seek out the advice of an unbiased person - especially when it involves major life decisions like whom to marry or which community to live in or what job to choose etc. – to ensure that we aren’t blinded to the inner essence of that which are pursuing by all the glitz and bling.

All this can help explain why the great patriarch Jacob was so willing to seek out and follow the advice of his parents Isaac and Rebecca in choosing a marriage partner although he was already 63 at the time. Jacob understood the invaluable power and benefit of advice and he therefore took advantage of all the wisdom and experience of his parents when looking for a wife.

I daresay the world would be a much better (and happier) place if we too would follow Jacob’s lead and seek out the advice of others wiser and less biased than ourselves before making serious life decisions.

That’s my advice to all of you. And there’s no charge. (-:

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