Building Utopias in Five Easy Steps

It’s curious. This morning I went to a B’not Mitzvah for two girls who I helped teach in the fourth grade when I was their madrich. When I got to the synagogue, I ran into our director of adult education. She asked me if I was finished for the summer yet, so I told her I had been since the middle of May and was now researching colleges. She asked what I was studying and I told her math. Then she asked if I knew someone, and I didn’t, but I recognized his name as someone my sister had confirmation with years ago. He went to U of M and has since gotten his doctorate in math.

Funny things, these connections we make.

After the wonderful service, I ended up sitting at a table during our luncheon with people I hadn’t known. So since mingling is not my strong suit (and for no reason, at the time), I introduced myself. The first couple wasn’t Jewish, but they were neighbors of one my students. I like to think my hospitality made a favorable impression, not to mention they were good conversation nonetheless: He was a photographer and had done Bar Mitzvot up in Raleigh at Beth Meyer. Did I mention NCSU is one of my top choices? Did I mention it’s in Raleigh?

The second couple was engaged in conversation with the others, on the far side of the table with whom I had not easily introduced myself (distance our only separator). I overheard them saying their children had attended Elon and Chapel Hill (you can only guess where I’m going with this) and I inquired further, to lovely responses.

How curious indeed. Here I am, looking intently at colleges, and I stumble into not one, not two, but three relevant conversations when I had expected none. It’s almost as if it were all preparing me for today’s teaching. And, by the way, did I mention I love Hillel?

2.5 Hillel taught:

Do not withdraw from the community;
Do not be sure of yourself till the day of your death;
Do not judge your fellow human being till you stand in his situation;
Do not say “It is not possible to understand this,” for ultimately it will be understood;
Do not say “When I have leisure, I will study,” for you may never have leisure.

A flashback to last week: I mentioned I had first heard that teaching one Shabbat afternoon when I had read my Bar Mitzvah parshah. I can repeat the sentiment this week. (Indeed, it’s true! I can’t remember the reason–it never really made much sense to me at the time, so I’m not surprised–but Naso was read on Shabbat afternoon two weeks in a row, so I read it two weeks in a row. Last week’s teaching was the first. This week’s teaching–obviously, I should hope–was second. I suppose I can say I’ve got a special attachment to the two of these.)

I’m in a list-making mood today, so I’ll start with point one.

Do not withdraw from the community

Judaism is a community faith. It revolves around community practices. After all, the most basic service–if not all religious services–require a minyan, a minimum of ten Jewish adults (and have I mentioned before that it takes ten equal sources of sound to double the volume? It’s as if a minyan itself uplifts our prayers to heaven on account of that alone). The Jewish culture revolves around communal activities, from community service to religious schools to holiday celebrations. There’s no such thing as a lone Jew.

And for good reason! Those who live alone die alone, sooner and sadder than those who have a community to support and stimulate them. From a more leader-oriented perspective, communities provide a forum for exchanging ideas, for finding encouragement and recreation, for interpersonal connections and priceless networking. If not for belonging to such a community, all that I mentioned earlier could not have happened today.

But it’s easy to withdraw from a community. We all know the reasons why we should BELONG to a community, that’s the easy part. The harder part is not falling back. When we feel shamed or embarrassed or intimidated, or in our times of most need, it’s often hardest to reach out for others. And here comes Hillel, just when we need him, telling us not to withdraw. Telling us to stay strong and stay committed to the community. What could go wrong?

Do not be sure of yourself till the day of your death

I’m going to be president someday. I will speak Japanese and German, Portuguese and Hebrew, sit down with terrorists to begin world peace, make equality the true law of the land, and eradicate corruption everywhere. I’m going to be a college math teacher and educate the woman who’ll cure cancer, the man who’ll take us to Alpha Centauri, a dozen law, government, and financial officers, and eight educators that’ll take my place when I retire. I’m going to have a small number of children, but they’re all going to finish grad school with highest honors. And I’m going to live happily married until I die of old age, a very long time from now.

Does that seem too sure of myself? Probably ninety percent of that won’t happen, although I wouldn’t be upset if most of it did. That’s the point, though, I can’t be sure of anything I do until I’ve done everything I’ll do–and that won’t be until the very end, the day I die. It’s the same for anyone.

I can say I’ve done great things, but who’s to say if any of that will add up to anything in the years to come? It’s a humbling lesson, one I suppose many of us might rather ignore, but in the end, it’s necessary. I’ve met far too many good people that are far too high-and-mighty for their own good. And you know what? They’d all be more likable, and from that, more approachable and more productive if they’d just be a little more humble, you know?

Do not judge your fellow human being till you stand in his situation

Just like we shouldn’t judge ourselves, we should most definitely not judge others. I had a classmate once that I thought was a bit of a drunk punk. I got to talking with him once, though, and he told me how he’d started at some pretty low-level courses but had since built himself up to be among the students in the highest. Maybe he’d had a hard past, for reasons I might never know, but he was on his way to making things better. And just as he shouldn’t be too sure of what he’s done till it’s all been done and dead, I shouldn’t judge him when I haven’t a clue what he’s done or, more importantly, what he’s still going to do. And, trust me, sitting down with him for breakfast once and hearing his goals, I can rest assured he’s gonna do some pretty big things in his lifetime.

In a way, this line seems to be the anti-parallel of the last. The last warns us of becoming too tall in our own reflections, whereas this warns us of letting others become too short in the way we see them–until we’re in their place and we can see their reflections. And once we’re there, wouldn’t it follow to be careful of judging them too highly, when perhaps we shouldn’t? After all, sometimes we sing more praise than we should.

But usually when we do, it’s not as problematic as when we don’t sing the praise that’s deserved.

All together, these three teachings concern communities. The first tells us we, as individuals, should not withdraw from the community. The second tells us that we need to be humble, so that the community will not withdraw from us. And the third tells us to be careful with others, not that we ostracize them when we shouldn’t. It comes full circle, into a living, breathing, heart-working Utopia of a loving community. Can you believe that?

Do not say “It is not possible to understand this,” for ultimately it will be understood

I recall fondly making a comment here, all those months ago when I was studying this first, from the perspective of the student: That he should not give up too soon, but to keep working toward it. My rabbi smiled and paralleled with an example of a rabbinic student. Afterwards I got up the nerve to ask if he was implying I should be a rabbi; he laughed and said no, lightheartedly of course. Nonetheless, the thought stuck, until it withered.

The example still stands: We should not give up on our academic endeavors, for if we are being taught, we have the potential to understand–and it’s when we achieve understanding that the colors pour forth and fill the world with vibrancy. Sometimes getting there can be a challenge, but we can get there, and when we do, it’s blissful.

And beautiful.

With understanding also comes specialization, and with specialization comes a deeper sense of interconnection–the plumber helps the doctor helps the car dealer who sells the man who teaches children who grow up to become elected officials and further the cycle by providing funding to help small businesses stand on their own–of community. When we serve ourselves, we can serve a greater purpose of serving others–if we gear ourselves to that end.

The plumber might be bad at it. That salesman might only be in it for a profit.

But if we remember our earlier lessons, these bones strengthen and the community is not only fortified, but tightened and perpetuated.

This applies similarly to interpersonal relations. Say your neighbor plants ugly flowers that you despise on your borders. You don’t get why they like ’em, but if you persist, and if you open yourselves to see things from their position, you can understand why. Soon enough, you’ll love ’em even more than your neighbor does. In reality, things can be more disastrous than flowers, but the benefits of understanding far outweigh beauty, too.

Do not say “When I have leisure, I will study,” for you may never have leisure.

I know this feeling firsthand. I said I’d study Hebrew in my free time. I’ve since learned no more than I knew a year and a half ago. It’s pitiful, since I’d heard this then, too. I suppose the lesson never sunk in. We must plan. We must not be idle. Recalling his other teachings, “If not now, when?”

I heard a beautiful if second-hand interpretation of this saying this past Shavuot. A confirmation student at the Reform Temple in Greensboro had said this isn’t necessarily an admonition to act now, but a reminder that planning takes precedence. If not now, decide when. Put it on your calender. In your phone. On Facebook. Whatever you do, if you can’t do it now, make a commitment to get to it. Don’t idle away. Act.

Hillel was a genius, and he’s definitely one of my idols, as far as people who inspire me are concerned. So far we’ve had four lessons on community, and then there’s this one stuck on the end. Makes me wonder if it ties in somehow. Maybe I don’t understand it yet in this paragraph, but I’ll keep pushing ideas till I do.

One possibility: What is leisure? Time we have solely for ourselves. But if so far we have been told to jump into the community, if we have humbled ourselves and not sold short others, if we have worked to understand to in turn contribute, we are now active members of the community. We serve others. We serve them dutifully and happily.

But we still need to serve ourselves. Hillel also taught, “If I am not for me, who will be?” To contribute without resent, we must also nurture ourselves. To lead, we must at times follow. To give to others, we must also give to ourselves. Not in excess, necessarily, but in sufficient amounts, to keep us a healthy part of society. We need not make ourselves stagnant black holes for the sake of others. That does no good to anyone.

However, if we make time for ourselves, commit to creating those moments of leisure when we can study what we desire, not only do we grow, we nurture ourselves and revitalize our abilities to work within the community. We strengthen our bonds and we strengthen ourselves. In the beginning we’re told that we are a part of the community, and then we’re told in three easy steps how we can best contribute to that community. Now in the end we must be reminded that we are still a part of that community, and just like we serve others, we must remember to serve ourselves as well.

Like I said, Hillel is a genius.


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