Yesterday I got carried away with art. I like art. I like it even more since I added another hundred or so plugins to Paint.net. I knew it would happen when my internet came back, but I hadn’t expected to spend so many hours playing with them all right away. Nor had I imagined we’d be going to the laundromat last night, chasing circles after my niece for an hour or so, and then spend a few more folding before, so exhausted, bed was the only option.
And today, my head feels like one red balloon floating to the moon, quoth Enya. Carry on, I dare say, carry on. This one will be interesting. As I feel half Luna and half drowsy, I don’t see it being any other way.
2.9 Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai. This was a favorite teaching of his.
If you have studied much Torah, take no special credit for it since you were created for this very purpose.
I like to read the Hebrew with every week’s teaching. I usually just read the words, very rarely gaining much from them, but occasionally I’ll recognize a familiar shoresh (the three-letter root from which words are built, all sharing a common thread of significance) and remember a spark of verb conjugations or noun declensions and be able to fit the Hebrew with the English and know what it means. It makes me smile when I can do this.
The Hebrew text for the first line reads as follows: Raban Yoḥanan ben-Zakkai kibeil mei’Hileil u’mei’Shamai. Hu hayah omer. Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai is an obvious assertion; it’s merely his name in print, Yoḥanan, son of Zakkai. “Kibeil” shares the same root as “Kabbalah” and “kabbalat,” kuf-bet-lamed, and is a verb in the past masculine: he received. “Mei” means “from”; “u” means “and”; Hileil and Shamai, more names. “Hu” –he– “haya” –past masculine of “be”– “omer” –past masculine of “said.” He received from Hillel and Shammai. He said:
I was told I should read children’s books in Hebrew and learn a little bit at a time. I like that idea. Soon as I can get a hold of a copy, I think I’ll do that. If I can open my Brandeis modern Hebrew text again, it’d be even better.
Almost two months ago we learned that Rabban Gamliel taught that “God will abundantly reward them as though they had achieved it all through their own efforts.” Here, however, Rabbi Yoḥanan seems to be teaching us the opposite: We were created to study the Torah, so to do so makes us no more special than if we had not.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of times when the rabbis disagree–just look at Hillel and Shammai! They were practically in complete opposition on most topics, even those as trivial, we could say, as how to light the Ḥanukkiah! And if the order in which we light candles can be so heatedly contested, why can’t this be, too?
I think there’s a reason they thought to put in that Rabbi Yoḥanan had learned from both of these scholars, perhaps for the very fact because this teaching seems so contradictory to one that has come only a few chapters before. But, honestly, there must be some consolidation, for otherwise, only one would have persisted, right?
I think so. The task, then, is to decide how they boil down to a single solution. If everything has been placed in place for this one moment, if at our disposal all of history has been crafted for us, then how is that not a special moment? How is that just something to be considered and brushed aside? What is this rabbi thinking?
My personal philosophy is that everything in the universe has culminated in this one moment, that it has been the veined destination of the universal lifeforce to have put me right here, right now, with these words spewing before me, that in the next moment, when these are written and out there, everything has been put in place for the next moment, for the next person, for everyone. The world is constantly being created all around us. I’ve alluded to this thought in posts past, even in the one that I wrote about Rabban Gamliel’s teaching that I mentioned. I’ve learned, throughout my life, that whatever we call fate, if we call it at all, things happen as they’re meant to.
So, yes, I was created for this very moment. And everyone else was created exactly the same. You’re just as unique as I am, and we seem exactly the same when I say it that way, don’t we? Being individual is nothing special because we’re all equally as individual. Being special isn’t anything special because we’re all special just the same. So, certainly, it can build us up to know that the world has been made for us, but it can be humbling to know the world was made for everyone else just the same.
Should we then not feel compelled by either teaching? Quite the contrary. There’s a saying, a story, that King Solomon, the wisest of men, was approached by a man wishing to thwart his wisdom by demanding a saying that could make the joyous depressed and the depressed joyous. King Solomon considered this for a while, and when the man returned, he told him this: “Gam ze ya’avor. This too shall pass.” The man, defeated, was forced to conclude that the joyous would be reminded that good times will not last forever and the depressed would be relieved to know that light follows every darkness. Solomon’s wisdom was assured yet again.
This story teaches balance. There is trouble in excess, just as Hillel recently taught, and there can be too much of a good thing, and too much of a bad thing, too. Too much joy makes discerning right from wrong difficult–it’s all going swell, we say, why not have another round? And too much sadness can make new pursuits impossible–with my luck, why even bother? Yet to know that both shall pass can keep us on an even ground, a path fit for growth and discovery, never soiled by excess or stagnancy.
This teaching, I feel, follows a similar note. Yes, yes, the world was made for us! But it was made for everyone else, too. We should be allowed to thrive on ourselves, allowed to celebrate our achievements for all they’re worth, but we should not dwell too much upon ourselves that we forget everyone else. So you’ve won the world, that’s wonderful, but what about everyone else?
One of Hillel’s greatest lessons is about the importance of community and the importance of study and the importance of leading others along the path of righteousness. Yet just as Hillel taught, there is too much of a good thing, and very easily we can overlook the poisons in the golden goblet for the shimmer surrounding it diverts our attention where it’s not wholly needed. The cup can be half full or half empty but we would never know otherwise if we never looked inside. We can become so obsessed with leading we forget we were once followers; we can become so drunk on righteousness we become self-righteous; we can become so attached to a community that we feel it is ours alone and not a community at all, merely our own entourage.
Yet if we remember this, the first teaching to follow all of Hillel’s, a month of commentary on my part alone, we can realize just as Hillel taught us to be wary of excess, we should be wary of an excess of Hillel’s teachings, too.
I’m trying to think of a fitting conclusion and it’s a hard job to do. So we’re each special, what’s the hope in that? The world was made for you, so what? But it’s not really about any of this, isn’t it? Take no special credit for you were created for this very purpose. Poetic, isn’t it? Yes, the world was made for you, congrats, mazel tov, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do with it?
I’m reminded of those commercials years ago. “You’ve just won the Super Bowl, what are you going to do now?” And the response, spotted a mile away, “I’m going to Disney World!” They’re kind of comical, in a sort of way, but paramount in another: Yes, we should celebrate our victories, our accomplishments, and we should always remember that the world was made for us, for this one moment. But we need to temper that realization with the revelation that we’re not alone in this, that the world was made for everyone else, too. It’s not enough to know what we have, we’ve got to look beyond that, we’ve got to give no special credit for what we have, but instead look at what we’re doing with it, where we’re going next.
Yes, you own the world, and yes, you share it with everyone else.