For Less is More and More is Less

This one’s a bit long, but it’s the last we’ll see of Hillel for a while, so if you’re a fan like I am, I shall bid you read this one well.

6.8 Another favorite teaching of his:

More flesh, more worms;
More possessions, more worries;
More wives, more witchcraft;
More maidservants, more lewdness;
More menservants, more thievery;
More Torah, more life;
More study with colleagues, more wisdom;
More counsel, more understanding;
More good deeds, more peace.

One who has acquired a good reputation has acquired something for himself (in his lifetime);
One who has acquired Torah has acquired eternal life.

It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how much he likes lists?

I feel like I’ve been saying “it’s obvious” a lot when thinking about Hillel, and if it isn’t obvious, it’s usually for good reason. Last week–has it been only a week? I feel like I’ve missed a week for some reason–I took some time to discuss PaRDeS (the four levels of Torah study) and mentioned how, relative to that teaching, Hillel seems to speak on all levels at once. I now take that particular revelation and broaden it to a more general statement: Hillel likes to leave a little of each level in each of his teachings.

From the plain reading of Peshat, we can see he’s merely making logical relationships: More flesh, more worms, more workers, more thieves, et cetera. As we move onto the more allegorical Remez, we can look at a rabbit and look at a doe and say, yes, if there is more flesh, there will be more worms. And then we can look at a small business and then at, say, a government, and agree that as we put more people to work, there’s more chance for corruption, and therefore more corruption occurs. Very basic lessons, we might say, but sometimes, for some people, they’re still at that level, whether for age or newness to the text and study, or for any other reason; if they’re only able, at that point in their lives, to see on the levels of Peshat or Remez, well, there’s still something here for them, too.

Onto Drash, we must move into the realm of metaphor, of meaning outside the text that runs parallel to it. I think this is a simple teaching. For the past few weeks Hillel has taught us many things, many large and very important things: He has taught us about communities, both being a part of them and aiding them; he has taught us wisdom by revealing the obvious that we overlook; and he has taught us leadership and why it’s important to posses and hone whether we’re in positions of leadership or not. Now he seems to be teaching us another saying we’ve all learned, we’ve all learned but have sometimes forgotten: Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

We might think that if we’ve got more flesh, more size to our stature, more substance to our wealth, it would do us some good, but on the contrary, it’s as they also say, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Just because we have more doesn’t make us more; it only means we have more to bury after we die, more flesh for the worms to infest.

We can make the same argument for our possessions–that they’re just extra stuff. But if we have more stuff, we must concern ourselves with where to put it all, and if it’s stuff we value, how to protect it from harm. The more time and energy we put into keeping safe and storing our possessions, the more stress we have because of them and the less time and energy we have for other things. Simplicity is good.

More wives, more witchcraft. I don’t think only wives are witches, nor do I think witchcraft is inherently evil, but I suppose we can paraphrase for the modern day and say the more acquaintances, the more ill will: The more people we seek to appease, the greater are the chances for not appeasing any of them. Like Herbert B. Swope once said, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.”

The next two seem to go hand in hand: maidservants and lewdness, manservants and thievery. By hand in hand, however, I don’t mean to say that maidservants must be lewd or that manservants must be thieves, but that the two seem to exist as a sort of parallel: Those we order around are not likely to hold us in high regard, and are thereby inclined to be vulgar and obscene toward us (even if behind our backs) and to covet what is ours, whether they take it or not. It’s simply that old saying again, what goes around comes around, and should we treat others foully, they’ll return us the favor.

So we can see, from these five points, that there are some things where less really is more. Less flesh, fewer worms; fewer possessions, less stress; fewer acquaintances, less ill-will; fewer servants, less lewdness and thievery. It’s totally logical, completely common sense. As I said before: It’s obvious.

But sometimes it’s these reminders of the obvious, of the every day, that we need most, to return us to the realization that what we’ve seen as mundane is not always as harmless as we might prescribe it. We get comfortable in our own places, in our ills and excesses. It is as I wrote to a dear friend a little more than a week ago:

Yes, I do think this fear is only a step on the path. I can get very comfortable hiding myself, being the one unknown, being but another person in the crowd, that I can forget quickly how liberating and exciting it is to be open and upfront with people. We each have vices, have learned that the least lovable situations are ones where we’re comfortable because we’ve been stuck so long. But it’s not true, never has been. It’s scary to plow forward, to grow, to be vulnerable, never knowing what we’ll find or who we’ll be when we get there, but it is worth it. The journey always is.

Or as some like to put it, sometimes we need a good, hard kick in the ass to get going again. Hillel has a knack for these, don’t you think?

However, there are things in this world that are often ones we do forget, ones that don’t seem as important as the rest, especially in our modern American system of ideals. Our modern American system of ideals that is currently one-tracked on the path of more, more, more–more flesh, more possessions, more lovers, more servants. It’s sickening, watching some shows on television, forced to wonder, is this really what our country’s come to?

Or even more terrifyingly so: Is this truly what people care about? Having more, more, more? Don’t they know what they’ve got? What we’ve all got? Haven’t they any clue for the real worth of any of this?

I shall digress, for my own sad ails toward our country are secondary to today’s post, are at most my own fears of the direction we’re headed in, not nearly at all what I care to give my audience on this warm summer night. Maybe someday I shall voice these poisons trickling through my veins, but tonight I’ll leave them be.

So it’s no surprise when I reel things back to my original point what some of these things we forget appear to be:

First there’s Torah. Which I know might only apply to some of us, but as I have said before, the Torah is a code of laws, a path to righteousness, to goodness. By following it, we become closer to God (if that’s the path to God we walk upon, for I believe there are many paths to God, and not all of them look even remotely the same), and by studying its stories and lessons, we can learn insights into our own lives and realize our own potentials and hidden strengths without ever knowing we’d had any of it inside us. And with luck, this knowledge may spread, become infectious, and do more good than at first forecast. It is in this hope, after all, that I share all my studies here.

Second is studying with colleagues. Not only is a good conversation with friends much fun (and much relief), it also leads to new perspectives–and who can’t do with a few new perspectives now and then? When we learn together, we learn more and remember more than we would if we tried to study alone. It’s to the benefit of everyone, when we study together, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes, good things can be overlooked when we’re having fun.

Next is counsel. Obviously receiving counsel helps us understand things, but so does giving it. I recall fondly that the first time I truly understood the distance formula was in teaching it to someone else. And I’ve found that sometimes I’ve learned more about my own problems in trying to help others solve theirs. It’s a strange twist of the universe, that giving more makes one get more, but it’s not something I question. Instead, I just happily help others when I’m given the chance, knowing that some help may come for myself, without even realizing it.

Lastly is doing good deeds. This one gets special mention because I understand the Hebrew perfectly. His exact wording is “tzedakah,” which comes from the root meaning “righteousness.” Righteous is a word I think has come to have a bit of a negative connotation for some reason (not at all because of the common complaint of some people being too self-righteous, I’m sure), so to make sure we’re all clear, let’s refresh our definition, shall we? Righteousness is parallel with morality and virtue, justice and uprightness. It’s what we mean by a good man, or a good woman, or a good person–they’re upright, virtuous, just, and moral. Regardless of what our own morals might be, if they’ve got any and uphold them, they’re righteous in someone’s book.

The second part of this statement is that righteousness leads to peace, to “shalom.” Shalom’s a really cool word, which not only means hello and goodbye, but also means wholeness. So not only does doing good things bring a sense of peace to us (it’s true! try to do a few good turns daily and you’ll see you feel pretty good about yourself), but if we lead righteous and worthy lives, we’ll find we live wholesome lives, too. Isn’t it amazing?

The last two lines seem as one to me: If we lead a righteous life, one with Torah, we will have built strong reputations for ourselves, a gift to us in our own lifetimes, but also we will have built a legacy that will be known long after we die. And in that way, I feel, we really will have reached eternal life–for as our lessons are learned and carried on, we have laid the foundation for a better world, one that will live on forever.

From communities to leadership, now to self. These things Hillel teaches us today, these are things we can do for ourselves to fulfill ourselves. He’s told us what we can do with less, and of what we should strive to have more in our lives. His hope for us is not only that we serve our communities and lead where no one else will, but he also hopes–just as I hope–that we’ll fulfill our lives, that we’ll fulfill ourselves, not just by doing for others, but by recognizing that we can do for ourselves without making everything about ourselves.

He teaches us, as so many have often told us, as so many have made trite, that sometimes the truth really is less is more.


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