Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hillel’s Lessons in Word and Deed

About a month ago I officiated a Bat Mitzvah celebration for a young lady named Na’ama. It was not your typical Bat Mitzvah celebration. (If you have not yet noticed, typical is not what I am really into…) The celebration’s focal point was Na’ama herself leading a study session on the topic “A Celebration of Multiple Identities and the American Spirit”. She discussed how her namesake, the queen of Israel, exemplified the celebration of multiple identities and how George Washington in his letter to the Jews of Newport emphasized this very same idea. The gist of what I shared with her and her guests, in my personal remarks, follows:

What do we wish for our kids? Well, we hope that along with the inevitable mistakes they will make, and the lessons they will hopefully learn from them, they will on balance make the right choices. The million dollar question is, what qualities do they need to have so this does, in fact, happen?

For starters, they need intelligence and creativity, which I can tell Na’ama has. The thing is, that that is just not enough. After all, the financial crisis we are still in was caused by a bunch of really intelligent and (overly) creative people. They used those very qualities in spades, made some really bad choices, and got us all into a huge mess.

So what else is crucial to make sure that you can mostly make good choices? Well, you need a few qualities, that again, from spending time with Na’ama, I can tell she has: a caring attitude towards others, a sense of true humility, and the understanding that most issues are not black and white, rather gray.

There is a wonderful story in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a) that exemplifies just this point in word and deed:

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot”. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, now go and learn it.”

Shammai shows that he is pretty much a black and white kind of guy. It is my way or the highway with him, and it is difficult to say that he is acting humbly or in a caring manner. Hillel, on the other hand, has one hard and fast black and white rule – treat others as you want to be treated. Now, says Hillel, go figure out the details on your own; life is mostly gray, after all. This demands true humility, because when you tell someone to go figure it out, it means they may find different answers than you did. They may end up using a slightly different measuring stick, when it comes to the nitty-gritty. Hillel is totally OK with that. Hillel, in his actions, shows that he is not just talk, he actually is very caring. He treats others as he would want to be treated. He lives what he preaches.

The postscript of this story, and the very fact that it has one, is fascinating. The Talmud is a book of discussions, and it goes back and forth, back and forth. Many times it does not give clear and consistent rulings even on issues of law. Not here. The Talmud uses a Paul Harvey “rest of the story” type of postscript to pass clear judgment on which of the rabbis was in the right, and which was in the wrong. It gives two more examples of how Shammai treated “interesting” potential converts with his black and white uncaring approach, and how Hillel acted in caring manner, and was willing to meet them where they were. It then tells us:

Some time later the three met in one place; said they, Shammai's impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel's gentleness brought us under the wings of the divine presence.

So, Na'ama, hold on to that. Continue to follow Hillel's path. Continue to show a caring attitude towards others, continue to exhibit a sense of true humility, and hold on to the understanding that most issues are not black and white, rather gray. This will put you on Hillel’s path of success in a way that truly matters. You will, on balance make good choices, and will truly make a difference in the world.

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