ONCE THERE WAS a non-Jew who approached Rabbi Shammai, requesting to learn the Torah standing on one foot, signifying a very short amount of time. Rabbi Shammai sent the individual away with great hostility. The non-Jew then approached Rabbi Hillel with the same request, “Teach me the Torah standing on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel replied “That which you do not like, do not do to your fellow person. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
Once there was a whole generation of Jewish baby boomers who went to Hebrew School and disliked it so much, they faded away into assimilation. I don’t know about you, but I spent more time in my Hebrew School director’s office than in the candy store next door to the synagogue…but it was a close second and the classroom was a far off third location. A generation of us baby boomers had teachers who couldn’t teach or were not qualified or just weren’t engaged enough in their work to go beyond the boring Hebrew school text books and inspire Jewish youth.
Gladly, this is not the case here in Orange County. I am privileged with my work for the Center for Jewish Life at the Merage JCC to meet with the synagogue religious school directors and teachers as well as the Jewish pre-school directors and teachers in the county. They are all creative, dynamic individuals who care about our youth and the concept of Jewish values and continuity. They continue to grow through community-wide local enrichment and professional development. I am proud that our new Center for Jewish Life can be a driving force in this process!
The Rabbinic Schools of Shammai and Hillel were traditionally at odds with one another. They argued over numerous customs, laws and ideologies. For instance, the lighting of the Hanukkah candles… Shammai argued that the miracle was of eight days diminishing down to one last day of oil. He thus argued that we should begin by lighting eight candles the first day, seven the next, and so on until the last day… one final candle. Hillel argued that the miracle increased and each day was another miracle, so from one candle to eight candles. We hold by Rabbi Hillel. One of the beauties of the Rabbinic Talmudic books is that both the majority and minority opinions are shared. Both are important not just in ritual related customs but in philosophical ideas.
Another argument between these two schools was on the concept of if humanity should have been created. Shammai argued that humanity should not have been created. Look at the evil, selfishness and destruction that humanity has brought on (and this was almost two thousand years ago!). Hillel argued that humanity should have been created. Although in most cases Rabbi Hillel won out, in this debate he conceited to Rabbi Shammai. Humanity should not have been created BUT Hillel added, since humanity has been created we must search our way. We must search our ways…
One of my favorite sayings accredited to Rabbi Shammai is “Be the first one to greet your neighbor.” And I don’t mean passing someone by with “How’s it going?” and then not sticking around for the answer. Look them in the eye, connect and listen.
And one of my father’s favorite quotes from Rabbi Hillel and is on his gravestone: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” I can ask myself these three questions every day, and still be challenged daily with my journey called life. Rabbi Hillel is also attributed to the saying: “Do not say: ‘When I have leisure I shall study,’ perhaps you will never have leisure.”
Our youth have the structures of schools. How do we adults study? For some reading, for some the web and for others there is a vast array of Jewish education in our community. From all of the synagogues to community wide organizations like the JCC, learning is offered by way of courses, lectures, seminars and cultural activities.
Another saying of Rabbi Hillel: “Do not separate oneself from the community.”
For your Rosh HaShana new year’s resolution this year, choose something you want to learn. Find a way to stimulate yourself through one of the many educational opportunities that our Orange County Jewish community offers.
If not now…when?
Mark Lazar is Director of the Center for Jewish Life at the Merage JCC of Orange County. Besides working with the youth at the center, Mark offers numerous adult learning opportunities as well.