Don’t Assume: Taste the Wine

Image: My son Jim Scott. (Jimbo Scott Music: All rights reserved.)

Rabbi said: don’t look at the container but at that which is in it: there is a new container full of old wine, and an old [container] in which there is not even new [wine].

Pirkei Avot 4:20

This snippet from Pirkei Avot [Verses of the Fathers] is valuable because it offers an important lesson about choosing a teacher, and it applies as well to many situations. Don’t assume that because someone “looks the part” they are the best qualified for the job.

A story: A few years ago, I was just out of the hospital, still on oxygen, but I had promised weeks before to officiate at a funeral. My doc said, “Ok, but someone else has to drive you.” My son Jim (photo above) volunteered to help. He put on his best suit and tie, and I gave him a kippah to wear. At the funeral, everyone called him “Rabbi” and didn’t listen when he corrected them.

Jim looked like a rabbi out of Central Casting: dark suit, big beard, with a kindly manner. However, Jim isn’t even Jewish, much less a rabbi. (I converted when he was in his teens.) In real life, he’s a musician.

Our brains look for patterns, which is why stereotypes are so powerful. We might look at a surgeon and think, “Not old enough to be a doctor!” But if we look on her office wall, she’s highly credentialed – it was our assumption that a pretty young woman couldn’t be a surgeon.

As Rabbi Judah HaNasi says above, taste the wine! Ask questions. Don’t say, “Oh, honey, you look like my niece! You can’t be a surgeon.” Say, “Where did you do your residency?” In looking for a rabbi, or a doctor, or a friend, even, look for what they do and what they have done. Appearances are deceiving.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

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