Thursday, May 12, 2016
You've certainly heard the story, because everyone knows this story. It's the one about the prospective convert who wanted to be taught the entire Torah as he balanced on one foot. Now, that really is an unreasonable expectation. Torah is vast. We have 613 laws, each comprised of reams of details, plus all the philosophy and mysticism, not to mention the history contained in the Torah. Who could reasonably expect that any sage, regardless how talented, could precis that into a 60 second presentation?
The hyper-methodical scholar Shammai showed this presumptuous guest the door. He felt it an insult to Judaism to suggest that it could be whittled down into Dummies form.
But, as we all know, the persistent fellow strode down the street to the next Yeshivah and presented his challenge to the famed Hillel. Hillel was not only patient in his response, he was incisive.
"What you would hate done to you, don't do to others. The rest is commentary".
Hillel's response has been regularly quoted by Jews, misquoted by others and even edited into a core value of other religions. His is a beautiful and uplifting message about how to treat other people.
And it's wholly confusing at the same time.
How could Hillel suggest that the entire Torah is a commentary on social conduct? How does putting up a mezuzah, salting meat before eating it or wearing tzitzis help you understand how to treat people?
Hillel's point, and why it captures the essence of Judaism so perfectly, is that the way we treat people reflects how we see the world. If our worldview is focused on what meets the eye, we struggle to treat others well. When our perspective matures to see beyond the obvious, we find the tools to respect everyone.
Humans by default only see the obvious; the physical. When we look at each other, we read faces, hairstyles, fashion and a little body language. We typically miss emotion, potential and, almost always, spiritual greatness.
Torah's lifestyle is designed to tune us in to experiencing what lies beyond the surface. If a piece of parchment can become a conduit for Divine blessing, kosher meat a vehicle for spiritual connection and wool a garment of G-dly protection, then a person can become a beacon of light and an expression of G-d.
As we do more mitzvos and study more Torah, we become more aware of the value of the spiritual and the depth of the soul. This helps us see the next person not as a separate being who might steal my opportunities, interfere with my dreams or make demands on my time. Instead, I see others as souls masquerading as bodies. I appreciate that all souls are connected and the way I treat that person is effectively the way I treat myself.
Hillel encapsulated the two vital signs of healthy Judaism into one statement: You will only treat others properly if you pursue G-d's life-plan. And you only succeed at following G-d's programme when you see that you treat others altogether better.