1.12 Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from them.
Be a disciple of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and attracting them to the study of Torah.
There’s a trend in following the Pikei Avot that I’ve come to love. It’s what begins almost every other teaching: the phrase …received the tradition from them. It brings to mind an image of bloodlines and lineages, but such of the spirit and the soul, not of the body. That this teaching—this entire Teaching, an entire Tradition—could be so passed down like genes and chromosomes, it’s stunning to think of it for a moment and wonder, who have I received the tradition from?
According to Hillel, no matter who I’ve received it from, I should aim myself to be a disciple of Aaron. Aaron, of course, was the brother of Moses and the high priest of Israel. He followed the Lord’s commandments and officiated the offerings given to him. Aaron was a lover of peace, a peacemaker among the Israelite people. That, without doubt, is a goal to be strived for, an end of personal growth to be aim at.
But it goes deeper. We are not merely told to be like a disciple of Aaron—we are told to be a disciple of Aaron. And with this admonition comes a set of guidelines, rules to being, or perhaps requirements to becoming, such a disciple as this. Words and wonders as I look for, there’s a certain symmetry and parallelism to this list of requirements that works well when rearranged:
Loving your fellow creatures
Attracting them to the study of Torah
Clearly peace is key here—as it should be key everywhere—but the instruction of peace is not merely to love peace, but to love our fellow creatures. We can love peace as much we possibly could love anything, but without expressing that same love towards those around us, how can we truly love peace? Peace is not a singular state—it’s impossible to experience true peace as an individual. Only in groups, and more so in larger groups, does the feeling of peace become apparent, and if you’re part of a group and love no one, that peace will never be reached.
The inverse structure of what we’re not directly told to love also appeals to me: We are to pursue—bringing ourselves closer to others—but also to attract—bringing others closer to ourselves. It is a perfect balance of give and take. We are to pursue peace, but also to attract others to the study of Torah. We don’t quite see the same parallelism as before, however, when we link loving peace with loving our fellow creatures. Nonetheless, I believe there truly is a deeper sense of parallelism at work here, and I think you’ll agree in a moment.
What does it mean to pursue peace? Does it mean chasing it down and snagging it in a cage? Does it mean seeking out those who don’t argue to be in our company? Or is it something we can do without really “doing” anything—something, for example, such as following our traditions and morals to lead a life that reveres peace and seeks to make it a staple of our being?
(Such seems like following the Torah, to me, when by pursuing God’s mitzvot—his commandments—we’re seeking to become a holy and peaceful people.)
What does it mean to attract people to the study of Torah? Does it mean lacing the lessons with honey, so as to draw in more flies than with vinegar? Does it mean proselytizing and trying to convert those around us? Or is it something we can do without really “doing” anything—something, for example, such as living a righteous life and leading by example?
(After all, there’s a lot more to the Torah than just commandments about what foods to eat or what crops to plant—there’s moral traditions, too, and living a life by these standards, to me, seems like it would, like any other action iterated, draw others to the same.)
So of course there’s parallelism at work here. Hillel is likely among the most well-known (and certainly the most quoted—as we’ll see in two weeks) of all the rabbis in the Pirkei Avot, and I share a special bond with him: Three months ago when I decided to begin reading the Pirkei Avot, it was Shavuot and on that particular night, I studied, on more than one occasion, the teachings of Hillel. His succinctness is superlative; his way with words is wondrous. He is as much a poet as a priest, a disciple of Aaron as any other we could aim to emulate.
And with that said, with this teaching taught and this lesson learned, what more needs to be said? Love and peace, pursuit and attraction—it could be a romance, for all those words involved, and in a way it should be a romance, in the truest sense of the word: a tale of heroism and marvelous exploits, of idealism and chivalry, and of love, the eternal pursuit of love and life. Isn’t that what we all want, in the end, love and life and heroism? Perhaps heroism and marvelous exploits went out with the Middle Ages, but perhaps, in each of us, is a shred of what remains, and with that single spark of something outstanding, we can take this teaching to heart and pave our own paths, our own stories of heroism as we weave our tales of love and peace happily ever after.