1.13 This was a favorite teaching of his:
He who seeks fame, destroys his name;
Knowledge not increased is knowledge decreased;
One who does not study deserves to die;
One who exploits Torah, will perish.
Still reading Hillel. Still awed by his elegance. Reading the Hebrew, even though I’m not yet to the point where I understand the words, it even sounds like poetry. In math and science, we see elegance in a special way: Something so concise and simple it’s graceful, something so succinct it cannot be said in any better way. Hillel shares this same elegance. It is the elegance of perfection; it is the elegance that most emulates the nature of God.
I’ve been watching a program on string theory today, and in it, it was said that Einstein was one of the physicists who truly wanted to see the face of God—to find the whole picture, the equation that explains everything in the universe. I share this nature, as I’ve implied in past posts, and I dream of one day finding what I call this proclaimed Holy Grail of Science—the God equation, the one or two lines of numbers and symbols that sum up the universe with the same elegance that Hillel sums up such ethics as these. But that is a day far off, and this is today.
I’ll discuss each line in turn, then discuss the whole. It’s much the same in physics today: We must address each force in particular, then unify the forces in general. In the end, both fact and philosophy share a singular goal: elegance.
“He who seeks fame, destroys his name” – I need only to point toward Hollywood and perhaps the capital to prove this statement. When we lose track of what propels us, we lose track of what defines us. In absence of cause, we become rogues, free radicals, cancerous tumors. It’s the old adage, write for your audience. It’s not always entirely true (you should at least write for the love of writing), but you should be considerate of what you’re writing for. Write for the sake of writing, not for making a name for yourself. Those who write for name write cheaply and in the end, they lose what talent they began with and only end up as those authors never read.
It’s the same with leadership. We have to hold onto our principles and do what’s right. Not for ourselves, but for our groups and our causes. I’m sincerely passionate about becoming a part of the National Marriage Boycott, and the other Gay-Straight Alliance officers agree with me; but unless our fellow members share the same enthusiasm, we won’t proceed. Why? Because we know what we do is not about us; it’s about the group. As a leader, you learn that true strength is not about being the strongest; it’s doing what takes the most strength to do.
“Knowledge not increased is knowledge decreased” – This one’s simple psychology: If we don’t use it, we lose it. And if we’re using it, we’re improving it. One of my greatest pleasures this semester is being able to work as a tutor in the Math Lab. Trust me, it’s not the allure of the paycheck that excites me; it’s the prospect of combining two things that I love into one: math and teaching. And by teaching math to those who need it, I’ll be reinforcing my own learning and making it easier for me to remember everything that I already know. I know from seeing countless others need to retake math classes even after having taken them years before: Unless you use it, unless you make a habit of doing something, that knowledge will rapidly wane.
This applies equally well to technology: As the world advances around us, if we fail to keep up—even if we maintain our levels of expertise—we will be at a disadvantage to those around us. Relative to this increase in the extent of knowledge, ours is itself equally decreased.
“One who does not study deserves to die” – I’ve heard comparison of death to a failure at life, and it’s in this sense I’ll assume a lack of studying leads one to deserve death—if by death we mean failure. If we then perceive study to be any work toward a goal, those who don’t do, do deserve all that they’ve done: Nothing. Failure. It’s simple reciprocity: The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. If you seek to learn, you will succeed. If you squander your duties, you deserve to die.
Education seeks to change this. It’s why there’s so many opportunities for people to become educated and to pull themselves up through society (even though this task is itself becoming more difficult, even as education is theoretically becoming easier to obtain). The point remain: Without trying to make education an integral part of one’s life, a person can only move in one direction: To the bottom.
“One who exploits the Torah, will perish” – From the realms of the actual, to the realms of the spiritual. The Torah—both the written Torah and the oral Torah, from which the Pirkei Avot is taken—is a guide for living righteously and as a holy people. It’s a perfect guide to life. And to stray from this ideal is, in Jewish thought (as we’ve seen in some past weeks), to perish. If we exploit that, if we take it for granted or don’t take it at all, what else could come of us?
But what happens if this perishing is not meant to be a physical ordeal but instead a spiritual one? Food perishes. It spoils and becomes rotten. The food itself is still there, but it lacks the freshness and the flavor it once had. What used to be sustaining is now poisonous. It’s the same with us: If our souls perish, if we do not foster our spirits, then we too will rot and turn toxic. It’s an empty feeling, to feel soulless; it’s a feeling that faith can help dispel. And by following the Torah, or whatever religious path you follow, that death can be wholly assuaged.
So now we come to the end. The whole. Where all things come together. To unify four things into one: From the destruction of reputation, through the destruction of skill and success, to the destruction of the soul itself. If we destroy our name, we lose our following, the trust of others. If we don’t learn, we lose; if we do not do, we decay; all the while, we lose our usefulness to ourselves and to others. If we stop studying, if we stop striving, we stop reaching for success and only grab failure. If we exploit our principles and disregard our morals, we perish inside. We lose our way and we lose ourselves. We end up lost. In the end, this entire teaching is a lesson on living, a lesson on living to your greatest potential and to your greatest success.
And all of this in four lines.