Apply Our Hearts to Instruction

Yael Eckstein  |  April 8, 2022

Teenage boy studying the Torah with an elderly man in Romania.

Apply your heart to instruction
    and your ears to words of knowledge.
— Proverbs 23:12

We continue with devotional thoughts from the Book of Proverbs every Friday. One of the 11 books in the Torah known as the Ketuvim, Hebrew for “writings,” Proverbs is part of the “wisdom tradition,” which also includes Job and Ecclesiastes.

One of the greatest challenges in life is facing up to something about ourselves that we need to change, a weakness that we should be working on. Of course, we all like to think of ourselves as always trying to improve, but let’s be honest. It’s not easy.

The most important ingredient for effective personal change is humility. If we don’t see our own flaws because we think we’re perfect, if we’re in denial that anything needs to change, then we won’t be willing to hear even the most honest and well-meaning criticism when it comes our way.

Similarly, when we see something that needs work in a friend or loved one, before saying something we should stop and think. Is this person willing to hear what I have to say? Am I the right person to say it?

We often make a big mistake if we think that just by offering advice and telling someone what we see that they’ll accept what we’re saying and change their behavior. Unless the person in question trusts us and is willing to listen, offering criticism will be counterproductive.

Apply Our Hearts to Instruction

Our verse from Proverbs teaches us the importance of having the right attitude as a prerequisite for learning and change: “Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge.”

The Hebrew word for “instruction” here is mussar, which is often translated as “discipline” or “ethics.” Mussar comes from the same root as maasar and asar which mean “bondage” or “restriction.” In other words, mussar means “instruction” that disciplines and holds back our natural impulses.

The lesson of this verse can be seen by the order of the two statements. In order to really learn and change we must first apply our hearts to instruction, mussar. We must be humble and open to regulating and restricting our habits and instincts. We must have an attitude that is conducive to having our eyes opened to new ideas.

Only then, once our hearts are ready, can we open our ears to knowledge and really learn new ideas.

Your Turn:

Are you willing to learn and change? Is there a friend or loved one you trust to share with you what you need to improve on? Open your heart to positive change today.