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In the Grand Scheme of Things: Ethics of the Fathers: 2:5

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yonason Goldson

When Hillel the Sage talks, it pays to listen.

"Hillel said, do not separate yourself from the community, do not trust yourself till the day you die, do not judge your fellow until you reach his place, do not make a statement that cannot be understood, [intending] that ultimately it will be understood. And do not say, "When I am free, then I will learn," for perhaps you will never be free."

In our mishna, the great sage Hillel discusses the importance of the Jew to recognize his place in the grand scheme of things. For no matter how great our individual potentials may be, we can only realize our true potential by directing our efforts toward the benefit of society as a whole.

Do not separate yourself from the community

We find a powerful example of this axiom in the life of Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, whose immense wisdom prompted his teachers to say that if all the scholars were to be placed on one side of a scale and Rabbi Elazar on the other, he would outweigh them all. After several years studying and teaching in the great yeshiva of Yavneh, Rabbi Elazar considered it time to establish a new Torah institution in northern Israel. His colleagues, however, did not think it wise to separate themselves from the community of scholars at Yavneh, so they declined his invitation to accompany them. Rabbi Elazar went ahead with his plan anyway, expecting that once he had established his yeshiva, other scholars would follow.

They did not. Rabbi Elazar built his yeshiva in the north, but he attracted only poor students who took more interest in the local hot baths than in the teachings of the sage. With no one to challenge him in learning, Rabbi Elazar's mind gradually lost its keen edge and, unnoticed, much of his Torah knowledge slipped away from him.

After a time, Rabbi Elazar returned to Yavneh, where the scholars there honored him greatly and asked him to teach them from his wisdom. As he began his lesson, however, he misread several letters in the text, transforming the words haChodesh haZeh lochem (this month is for you) as haCheresh hayoh libom (their hearts were struck dumb). The entire yeshiva stood stunned by the gross blunder of the once-great Torah giant, and Rabbi Elazar himself realized the catastrophic error he had made by separating himself from his colleagues. He remained in Yavneh, and soon recovered all the Torah wisdom he had lost.

Do not trust yourself till the day you die

Here again Jewish history provides us with a poignant example of our mishna's lesson. In fact, Hillel himself composed this part of the mishna with a specific historical lesson in mind -- the tragic end of the great Hasmonean leader Yochanon Hyrkanus.

Son of Shimon, the last of the Maccabees and the first ruler over an autonomous Jewish state since before the destruction of the first Temple, Yochanon guided his precarious nation deftly through complex military and political turmoil, capitulating to the Syrian army only to wait for the moment when internal power struggles would enable him to play one Syrian contender against another, ultimately regaining political independence. Yochanon strengthened the role of the Sanhedrin, the religious High Court, in influencing every day life among the Jewish people; he instituted decrees against labor to enhance the intermediary days of the Passover and Sukkot festivals; and he served as High Priest in the Temple with such devotion that he merited Divine Inspiration.

Throughout his illustrious career, however, Yochanon was haunted by an unrelenting ghost. When his father and uncles -- the Maccabees -- overthrew their Greek overlords at the time of the miracle of Chanukah, they made a critical error. For all their greatness and the merit they earned by recapturing Yerushalayim and breaking the power of the Hellenists, the Maccabees remained Kohanim, members of the priesthood but not descendants of the royal line of King David from whom all legitimate Jewish rulers must trace their ancestry. Having freed the land from the Greeks, the Maccabees should have gone to the Sanhedrin and asked the sages to reinstate the monarchy of the House of David. They did not.

Consequently, Yochanon knew that the sages did not sanction his rule. He lived with this knowledge his entire career, leading as a capable and righteous monarch. But the knowledge that the sages silently rejected the legitimacy of his rule slowly burned away inside him until, in the last year of his life, he rejected the sages and declared himself a Sadducee, one of the heretical sects who denied the oral tradition received by Moses with the Written Torah. In a single moment, one of Israel's greatest leaders threw away a lifetime of righteousness to embrace heresy.

And so Hillel teaches us that no matter how great, how accomplished, how established we may be in our lives, our careers, our relationships, or our beliefs, we must remain both careful with and appreciative of all we have until our dying day. Most of all, we must retain a sense of our place in the larger community, recognize our obligations to others, and not allow our individual egos to lead us down the road to oblivion.

Do not judge your fellow until you reach his place

Traveling from town to town in rural Russia, the great Chassidic Master Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev stopped one night to take supper at a small inn in the Jewish quarter. At an adjacent table, a Russian soldier had captured the attention of most people in the dining room: the man had no concept of table manners, eating with his fingers, slurping his soup noisily from the bowl, wiping his face on his sleeve, and splattering bits of food over the table and floor all about him. People began to mock and deride the coarse manners of the soldier who continued eating, seemingly oblivious.

Reb Levi Yitzchok leaned over toward the man and asked quietly, "How long have you been in the Russian army?"

"Twenty years," muttered the soldier with his mouth full, not even looking up.

"It must have been very difficult for you," the Rebbe continued, "to have served so long as a Jew."

The soldier stopped suddenly and looked up at the Reb Levi Yitzchok, staring at him with such intensity that the onlookers feared for the Rebbe's safety. In the next moment, however, tears began streaming down the soldier's face. "You can't imagine how hard it was," he said. "They used to beat me, to give me the hardest duty, to spill my food on the floor, to insult me day after day. But I've never forgotten that I am a Jew."

And at the moment, the guests of the inn all came to the painful realization that there was much more to this soldier than his table manners.

In today's world of political correctness, we have come to a place where no one is held responsible for his actions, where nothing is intrinsically good or bad because no one has the right to judge. Hillel is teaching us a far more subtle and substantive point: he does not admonish us not to judge, but to understand how a person came to his place before rendering judgment. By seeking to understand, not only will our judgment be fair, but we may find ourselves able to offer help to a person in distress instead of merely condemning a person we believe to be worthy of nothing but contempt.

Do not make a statement that cannot be understood, [intending] that ultimately it will be understood

One can only imagine the confusion generated by Reverend William Archibald Spooner, the Oxford lecturer legendary for interchanging syllables, when he raised a toast to Queen Victoria and declared, "Three cheers for our queer old dean," or when, concluding a marriage ceremony, he instructed the groom that "it is now kisstomary to cuss the bride."

All the more dangerous, our mishna warns us, to intentionally obscure one's meaning in hope that, with the passage of time, the recipient will come to understand the original intent.

Good teachers know that good teaching aims to challenge students, to coerce or cajole their minds to operate beyond their comfort level, to push them to reach the point where they can learn on their own. In the transmission of information, however, and particularly in the transmission of Torah tradition and Jewish law, nothing may be left to chance, not even for the sake of promoting higher thinking. For the integrity of Jewish tradition is the foundation of Jewish existence and, should its reliability ever fall under suspicion, the entire structure of Jewish life becomes threatened. Such is a teacher's responsibility both to his students and to the entire Jewish nation.

Indeed, the heretical Sadducee sect began in just this way. When the sage Antignus taught his students to serve the Almighty with no expectation of reward, two of his students, Tzaddok and Beitus, intentionally misinterpreted his lesson, declaring, "Did the master not say that there is no reward? Why then should we follow the law?"

Students have sufficient ability to misunderstand, misinterpret, and misapply without any help from their teachers. Maximum clarity will minimize their opportunity to err.

Do not say, "When I am free, then I will learn," for perhaps you will never be free.

"Where is that ultimate child?" lamented the Rebbe of P'shis'che. "I have seen a man work his life away in the accumulation of wealth and, when I have asked him why he continues to work after making more than he could ever spend, he replies, 'It is not for me, Rebbe, but for the future of my child.'

"Then the man's child grows up and becomes a man, and he too labors in the accumulation of wealth, also proclaiming that he toils for his child. So where is that ultimate child? When will he come to benefit from all the generations who have worked their lives away for his benefit? Is he not merely an illusion, a fictional future that distracts one generation after another from living in the very real present?"

Responsibility for transmission of Jewish values falls first a foremost upon the parents. This requires not only the parents' thorough Jewish education, but passion about living a Jewish life as well.

Certainly Jewish schools play an essential role, but Jewish education begins in the home. Hillel warns us that the parent who sets other priorities before the study of Torah will probably never change his attitude to make it a priority. Even worse, he will teach his children not to value it as a priority either. However, by making Torah study a priority, a parent not only benefits himself, but provides his children with a priceless legacy that will serve them throughout their lives.

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