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Universal Truths: Ethics of the Fathers: 2:6

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yonason Goldson

In a universe that contains certain immutable truths, it's our responsibility to do our utmost to figure them out.

He [Hillel] used to say: a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient person teach. Those occupied excessively with business will never become wise [in Torah]. In a place where there are no leaders, strive to become a leader. Ethics of the Fathers, 2:6

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. However, everyone is not entitled to his own facts.

After warning us of the dangers of rushing to judgment and admonishing us to consider the effect of our actions upon others in the previous mishna, the sage Hillel now reminds us that our universe contains certain immutable truths, and that no amount of wishful thinking or political correctness can change absolute reality.

A boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious

Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz earned for himself a well-deserved reputation for intolerance of fools. "But Rebbe," complained one colleague, "the Talmud says that intelligence is given or withheld by the hand of Heaven. How can you fault a fool for his foolishness?"

Rav Naftali answered: "I have contempt only for those fools who cannot be satisfied with a small measure of foolishness, those who must aspire to rise to the ranks of the greatest fools in history, those who pride themselves on their foolishness and are never satisfied with the level of foolishness they have achieved and always desire more!"

The word boor translates and transliterates almost perfectly from Hebrew to English. It is a person empty of all social grace, devoid of all common sense and, worst of all, possessing neither awareness of his deficiencies nor interest in bettering himself. Such a person can never attain even the lowest level of righteousness, for he simply doesn't care enough to consider his actions or to acquire the sensitivity to differentiate between right and wrong.

Indeed, our mishna is not making reference to people of limited intelligence. A person not blessed with more than a little gray matter may still live his life as a model citizen. Conversely, a person with an exceptional intelligence quotient may be an utter fool, waffling irresolutely at every moment of decision or allowing himself to be manipulated and exploited by the unscrupulous.

What makes him a boor is his failure to seek out and develop the innate ability or talent that resides within virtually every human being. Like a fallow field, unworked and therefore unproductive, the boor exerts no effort to discover or develop his potential, and thereby wastes his life away, making nothing of himself, not contributing to the world, not even enabling himself to discern between basic right and wrong.

By contrast, an unlearned person may be a good, sincere, productive, contributing member of society. But if he lacks education, if he denies himself the study of the fundamental human values taught through Jewish tradition, then he will never achieve piety, the level that transcends simple righteousness. This does not require one to become a scholar of great distinction, but to commit oneself to the process of learning that enables each of us to continuously grow as human beings and as Jews, that reminds us that we always have more to learn and that we must constantly and continuously evaluate both our thoughts and our actions.

a bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach

Many of us grew up hearing from our teachers that "there is no such thing as a stupid question." The wisdom of this statement offers an essential insight into both learning and teaching.

To learn means to be an active participant, listening carefully, asking thoughtful questions, raising considered objections, suggesting creative answers.

By observing that a bashful or shy person, i.e., one unwilling to admit when he doesn't know, can never learn successfully, Hillel reminds us that learning is not a passive operation. To learn means to be an active participant, listening carefully, asking thoughtful questions, raising considered objections, suggesting creative answers. A passive person who wants his teachers to do the job of learning for him will never succeed as a student.

Similarly, a teacher cannot afford to lose patience with students who are slow, either by giving them the answers too readily or by rebuking them for not understanding more quickly. "Teach every student according to his way," advises King Solomon. The patient teacher will find the way to reach every student's heart and mind, or he will keep searching for it as long as he has to.

As uncomfortable as this thought might make us, most teaching takes place in the home. By creating an atmosphere where children feel their questions will be appreciated, given careful consideration, and answered thoughtfully, parents teach their children how to become successful students. By raising children to be successful students, parents give them the best chance they can have of growing into successful adults.

Those occupied excessively with business will never become wise [in Torah]

We have already discussed achieving a balance between worldly occupation and Torah study. The critical word here is excessively: like the boor, a workaholic has lost sight of the very purpose of his existence, to do good and be good; like the unlearned person, he fails to provide himself with the necessary intellectual and moral resources to use his accumulated wealth wisely and responsibly; and like the shy student, he misses one opportunity after another to benefit from the wisdom of others. Such a person may ultimately become materially wealthy, but he will never become wise.

In a place where there are no leaders, strive to become a leader

According to Jewish tradition, the Almighty dispatches a heavenly emissary to teach Torah to every unborn child waiting to emerge from its mother's womb. The saintly founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Yisroel Ba'al Shem Tov, told his students that during the days prior to his own birth, his soul had studied Torah together with another pure soul in preparation for the moment when they would be dispatched to serve their Creator in the physical world. "My friend merited to live a life of anonymity," declared Rabbi Yisroel, "while I was condemned to fame."

Thus does Hillel conclude our mishna with one of his most famous and fundamental expressions of Jewish philosophy, a warning concerning both the cost and the obligation imposed by notoriety.

Do not labor to attain a place in the limelight for the cost is great; but you must make the sacrifice, no matter the cost, when others need you.

In today's culture, where people revere movie actors and sports stars, where candidates fight to near death to win public office, where people eagerly humiliate themselves before millions of television viewers for a few moments of fame, Hillel's messages strikes an unfamiliar chord to the modern ear. But if we consider the humiliation heaped upon public figures, their loss of personal privacy, and the caricatures they often become in the glare of public attention, we may begin to appreciate the wisdom implicit in Hillel's warning.

The Torah recognizes the value of our private lives and reminds us that, once given away, our privacy may be lost to us forever. As bedazzling and enticing as celebrity often seems, it carries with a cost unlikely to compensate us for its sacrifice. Even where we believe we can serve the common good, even where we may in fact be able to contribute to society by serving in a position of leadership, the inevitable price of fame ought to deter us from embarking down that path and convince us to leave those tasks to others.

Such is the price of fame. However, if there is indeed no one to pick up the mantle of leadership, no one willing or able to fill a position or tackle a job, then we are not only encouraged to endeavor to take on that role -- we are obligated to do our best to rise to the occasion.

Herein lies the complexity of Hillel's message: although we should never seek to place ourselves in the public eye, neither are we free to hide from it when the public good calls us to duty. Do not labor to attain a place in the limelight, Hillel warns us, for the cost is great; but you must make the sacrifice, no matter the cost, when others need you.

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