If I say I’m going to break the trend by not including an introduction, but this very statement precedes the teaching and therefore carries the trend along, is the trend kept or broken?
No matter, just some musings, carry on.
2.6 This was another teaching of his:
A boor cannot be reverent;
An ignoramus cannot be pious;
A shy person cannot learn;
An ill-tempered person cannot teach;
Not everyone engrossed in business learns wisdom;
Where there are no worthy persons, strive to be a worthy person.
Hillel fascinates me. His attention to detail, his slightly skewed lessons that take some genuine thought to come together, his peculiar yet poetic way of phrasing things. If I should ever be a rabbi, I should like to be one like him. I suppose even if I never am a rabbi, I still will be a writer and a teacher, and these qualities of his I most admire can still be mine someday.
No matter, just some musings, carry on.
As you read this, should you be reading this around the time WordPress mechanically posts it as programmed (for, you see, the magic of the internet allows me to write this on Wednesday and post it on Saturday), I will be in a van destined for Jackson, Mississippi, for the ISJL Annual Education Conference. The ISJL, more verbosely known as the Institute of Southern Jewish Learning, provides my synagogue’s congregational school with our curriculum and most of the teachers are going. Obviously, I will be among them, but I mention this otherwise invisible temporal deception for one key point: That three of the six lines (that’s a whopping fifty-percent!) of this teaching concern, well, teaching. I find it ironically appropriate. The perfect lesson to learn before attending the conference.
What is a boor? Not a pig, as I had first absently thought whilst reading this (that, sir, would be a b-o-a-r), but a rude and unmannerly person. On the contrary, reverence is a feeling of deep respect and awe (as an aside, there was once an animated show called Digimon, and the main cast each received a crest embodying an emotion–love, courage, hope–that they had to exemplify to attain their highest potentials; in imagining myself among them, as I have done with many interests I’ve carried throughout my life, my crest was always the crest of reverence). So it’s an obvious statement, that a boor–so rude and unmannerly as they are–cannot be reverent. It’s a clear contradiction implied by solid definitions. So what’s the point?
That, my friend, is why I admire Hillel. He takes such an obvious statement, states it, and then makes us figure it out. It’s a lesson in observation and critical thinking, not to mention an exercise in becoming more self-aware.
Not only is an ignoramus a fun word to say and a dashing insult to dish out (talk about an academic arguer–just spit this one out in the midst of an encounter and watch the intellectual praise flow forth!), it’s also a fancy word for an ignorant person. Ignorance is subsequently simple to define: it is the state of ignoring what is around you (don’t you love self-reflective definitions?), or more clearly, lacking knowledge, awareness, or training. Piety, on the other hand, has nothing to do with 3.14159, but instead refers to a sense of reverence coupled with earnest obligation to serve that end.
Here we find Hillel doing it yet again. Instead of saying “A boor and an ignoramus cannot be reverent,” which sounds awfully like the start of a laughable joke, he insists upon flexing our vocabularies by finding two words that both mean respectful. How dainty is that?
Either way, if an ignoramus lacks the knowledge and awareness to fill such obligations, how can they ever hope to do them earnestly, or to instill that reverence within them? Another obvious contradiction, obviously presented for our own thought-provoking pleasure.
At first I was a little uncertain about this next one. A shy person not being able to learn? Hello, I was a shy person! And through the end of high school (when I began to lose my shyness), I learned a lot.
I suppose I did not possess all the possible facets of shyness: sure, I was bashful and sometimes timid, but I was not typically suspicious or distrustful. I suppose if we focus our definition more on the latter two we can easily see that, since learning requires a certain measure of faith and trust in our teachers, someone truly carrying all the attributes of shyness could be in a position to not learn, or at least not learn as much as they potentially could.
As always, though, Hillel has worked his wonders here, too: If we recall from last week his position on the importance of communities, being bashful and timid can certainly get in the way of opening oneself to true learning. By shying away from others, easily being scared off, we’re hindering our ability to become a part of that community, and when we do so, we lose the knowledge and learning a community can offer us.
Likewise, just as students must trust their teachers, teachers must respect their students. Ill-temperedness is not a trait either easily trusted or bestowed with faith. More importantly, when someone is presented with anger and offensive tones, they respond with more anger and offensive tones that only exacerbate the problem. In such a hostile environment, lasting learning leans more toward losing than lifetimes, you know?
I had a wonderful Calc III teacher, but sometimes his enthusiasm was just too loud for my personal taste and it felt like it was an affront on each of us, that he was not lecturing, he was yelling. Although I enjoyed his class nonetheless, I often found it difficult to maintain my focus on account of perpetually feeling like the brunt of an argument. And that was only perceived ill-temperedness! In fact he was a great guy, caring for his students and passionate about his subject. Can you imagine how much harder it would have been to learn had he actually been an ill-tempered guy?
The fact that not everyone engrossed in business learns wisdom baffles me a bit. When I speak of business, I tend to think of entrepreneurs and enterprises, of companies and cooperatives. In the more colloquial, however, business can imply whatever it is we occupy ourselves with. So in such an instance, I must be brave and face . . . the Hebrew-English dictionary.
. . . About five minutes later, after an epiphany in which I realized that “vischurah” could be equivalent to “v’schurah” (that is, the first letter being a prefix meaning “in”), I found the word for which I was looking, defined not exactly as “business” but as “goods, merchandise,” which definitely means business in the first sense, not the second.
With that cleared up, I can surmise with any experience, one should grow and learn intuitively about the art, the craft of that endeavor. We can call this learning wisdom. One in business can learn the wisdom of business, or one can be so engrossed in making profits or meeting criteria or any other sorts of things that the opportunity to learn genuine wisdom about the business goes belly-up, is lost, and is never mourned, for its presence and potential were never known.
Hillel, you have such a profound and beautiful way of stating the obvious.
This brings us to the last line, that last 16.667 percent, the one of all these that I find most intriguing and most deceptive and most important, too. In the absence of worthy people, be a worthy person.
It’s that simple, and yet, it isn’t simple at all.
For the last five lines we have been stating facts, nay, observations: Of boors and ignoramuses, there is no respect. Of shy people and ill-tempered teachers, there is no learning to be had. Of business-minded folk, wisdom is possible, but not guaranteed. It is, one could fathom, a cross-sectional analysis of a community in dire need of learning last week’s teaching. It is, one could say, a cross-sectional analysis of a community in such dire straits that the wisdom to be had of last week’s lesson is too profound to be learned.
It is, one could perhaps imagine, a classroom.
There’s the rude children, the children that just don’t know, the children who are shy or ill-tempered, the children so engrossed in their own habits that they don’t see what there is to be learned. Didn’t I say this was an appropriate teaching to have in mind whilst attending an educational conference?
Then again, no matter the portrait painted by the first 83.333 percent, what does it mean to be a worthy person in a place of no worth? Wait, let me be careful there: Hillel isn’t speaking of a place with no worth–that would imply that those there are worthless–he is speaking of a place of no worthy people. That implies something different. That implies a hidden worth beneath the surface, an unrealized potential waiting to be uncovered.
From all this we can postulate: A place possessing no worthy persons is a place possessed of boors, ignoramuses, distrustful and shy people, those engrossed in themselves, and those too ill-tempered to do any good.
So if we find ourselves in such a situation, we should change it. Not by changing them, at least not directly. Instead, we should lead by example. We should be reverent, and we should be pious, and we should embrace those around us with a fair sense of trust and commitment, we should settle our tempers until we are kind, and we should take special care to ensure that our focus is not solely upon ourselves but equally shared with everyone around us.
In a place with no leadership, we should lead. In a place of no knowledge, we should teach. In a place where we are not part of the community, we should become part of the community.
Not only does this teaching reiterate the most memorable lessons from last week’s, it also instills a new challenge to perfecting utopia: Leadership. It takes strong leadership to reach any end, and sometimes a leader is presented with a group of seemingly worthless followers. Have heart! They are not worthless; they only need direction.
If you’re going to be the leader you can be, if you’re going to be that person who in eulogies is cited to have achieved their highest potentials, then Hillel has a life-changing lesson for you: In a place of no worthy people, strive to be a worthy person. Because you have it in you, and when that comes out, it lights up the world for everyone around you.