The Torah on One Foot

1.15     Shammai taught:

Make the study of Torah your primary occupation;
Say little, do much;
Greet every person with a cheerful face.

I love this teaching. And it comes at a perfect time: When I’m not just one day late, but nearly two whole days late in posting this. It’s not that I don’t care, or that I’ve forgotten, but that I’ve been preoccupied with other things—other studies, namely physics and programming.

Is it better, then, for me to study Torah, or to study my classes?

I struggle with similar questions every day, as I would assume most of us do: Which action will take me farthest, will get me the best, will provide the most for the ones I love? There can truly be no answer among the multitudes, when every circumstance and situation dictates wholly contrary answers relative to each other, but this teaching, I feel, tries to unify them all.

I will kindly refrain from comparing this to String Theory, but if you happen to be interested…I could certainly elaborate.

My point is, going back to sociology, we each fit into roles, and these roles provide us with duties and dilemmas. The more roles we fill, the more conflicts between our roles arise. So therein comes the thought of a primary role, one that supersedes all our others roles. For example: A businesswoman who’s a mother runs out on a meeting to help her children. Thus her primary role is being a mother. Being a businesswoman may be important to her, but it’s not her primary objective.

Or her primary occupation, as Shammai might say. But should I run out on my studies to run to the Torah instead? I don’t have the answer. To think I do would be more foolish than to admit I don’t. So how does this teaching help unify all of these questions and provide a single answer?

Let me tell you a story. A man went to Rabbi Shammai one day and said he’d convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Enraged, Shammai chased him out with a stick. The man was determined, however, and went to Rabbi Hillel and asked him the same thing. Hillel got on one foot and said quite simply to the man, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” Convinced, the man converted to Judaism.

The moral of this story is not to chase away people who annoy you with sticks, although it might be fun to do. It’s to see what the Torah is and then to make that our primary occupation.

Shammai was an engineer and known for his strictness—as an engineer, he had to be! Even a few slight oversights could spell disaster. Focus and keen awareness was all that mattered. But it’s not all there is, and that’s something Hillel can remind of us even while we’re studying Shammai’s teachings.

This point is furthered when we look at the next part: “Say little, do much.” Its eloquence rivals Hillel’s, yet its stolid firmness, similar to the great mathematical proofs of Newton’s Laws in physics, is a stark contrast to Hillel’s poetic softness. This is not merely a map to guide us—it’s a street sign saying “Turn Here!” This is no request. It’s a command.

A command to study, to learn, to observe. It may not be Torah, but this is what I’ve been doing every day in physics since school began almost three weeks ago. I’ve studied. I’ve learned. I’ve observed. Thoughtful study is as much a method as is what we study with that method; so perhaps my primary occupation right now is not the Torah itself, but it’s study nonetheless, and in this case, I believe that has to suffice at the very least.

And if it doesn’t, I’ll greet every person with a cheerful face and carry on. After all—and I could write another week’s worth of this series on this statement alone!—Shammai holds friendliness on par with Talmud Torah—the study of the Torah. So perhaps he chased away those who annoyed him with sticks, but at least he greeted them with a smile first. That’s got to amount to something, mustn’t it?


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