For a few Tuesdays last semester a Chabad rabbi joined with a few of N.C. State’s Hillel students and spoke with us about issues in contemporary Judaism. Not to be confused with contemporary Jewish issues such as Israel, people leaving the faith, and the degradation of traditions, he instead led us through discussions about the modern significance of Yom Kippur, suffering, and free will.
It’s obvious, then, why I thought of him when I read today’s teaching.
This weekend was none other than the 25th annual North Carolina Pride. Actually, the event has been going on all week, but it culminated with the Pride Parade on Saturday. I had the opportunity to go once before, and it was a lot of fun and so sunny all my pictures were washed out from the intense sunlight.
Yesterday it rained.
But in this rain, the festivities went on with a crowd as strong as could be, and after the parade I ended up in a lengthy conversation with a visiting Christian who was shouting to all of us that we were sinners and would all go to hell. I hadn’t realized how significant that encounter had been until I reread today’s teaching.
I read today’s teaching last week, to get an idea of what I’d be working with, and I was a little surprised. It seemed to me to be an exact restatement of the principle of karma: What goes around comes around. Reading it again today, I can’t say I feel much differently. And that sort of puts me in a strange place to be.
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.
The news is late. If by now you haven’t heard, what are you reading my blog for? I’m an openly gay Jew–so I would presume most of my readers should know–and on account of this, if you’re following me, you’ve surely been following the news. So it’s no news today what I’m going most thankful for, and if it hasn’t been guessed already, then, really, why are you here?
No, I jest! Please stay! And here I shall refrain from writing “lol.”
24. The Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
I had hoped my scathingly sarcastic and inherently ironic post a few weeks back would help push the people to seeing sensibility, and I suppose somewhat it might have worked–for not even a whole week or two after, it was successfully repealed! It’s been a long and arduous fight, but we’ve made it, my fellow monsters, we’ve made it!
Imagine this: You’re at a party, a small gathering of a friend’s friends, and you know nobody. Thankfully your lovely host has arranged a mixer to help everyone get to know each other. It’s simple: Say your name (a couple times if you’re forgetful) and a person you’d love to have lunch with. Your heart flutters and your face contorts into a childish grin: You’ve got your answer–that cutie in your math class, you know, the one you like to stare at rather than looking at the planes and curves on the white board? Yeah, you know who I’m talking about.
But, wait, your host isn’t finished speaking! Next he says it has to be a historical figure!
And although you’d love to say you and your math cutie will surely make history, that’s still the future, honey, and you know it.
If I am not for me, who will be?
If I am for myself alone, what am I?
And if not now, when?
This third teaching of Hillel’s is perhaps not only his most famous, but also the most well-known of all the teachings—and I’ve seen it (often without due credit) everywhere from billboards to potato chip commercials. “If not now, when?” Later, obviously, since I’ll talk about each line in turn, as I have with most of the teachings before, and likely will for most teachings hence forth.
The first line here—“If I am not for me, who will be?”—seems as successful a lesson in selfishness as we can muster with such poignant elegance. The Hebrew itself is a hundredfold more stunning, however, in its simplicity and its lyrical quality: “Eem ain ani lee, mi lee?”
But certainly, the same man who taught us to be disciples of Aaron, who said not to seek fame but to study throughout life, could not be telling us to be selfish, could he?
He who seeks fame, destroys his name;
Knowledge not increased is knowledge decreased;
One who does not study deserves to die;
One who exploits Torah, will perish.
Still reading Hillel. Still awed by his elegance. Reading the Hebrew, even though I’m not yet to the point where I understand the words, it even sounds like poetry. In math and science, we see elegance in a special way: Something so concise and simple it’s graceful, something so succinct it cannot be said in any better way. Hillel shares this same elegance. It is the elegance of perfection; it is the elegance that most emulates the nature of God.
I’ve been watching a program on string theory today, and in it, it was said that Einstein was one of the physicists who truly wanted to see the face of God—to find the whole picture, the equation that explains everything in the universe. I share this nature, as I’ve implied in past posts, and I dream of one day finding what I call this proclaimed Holy Grail of Science—the God equation, the one or two lines of numbers and symbols that sum up the universe with the same elegance that Hillel sums up such ethics as these. But that is a day far off, and this is today.
I’ll discuss each line in turn, then discuss the whole. It’s much the same in physics today: We must address each force in particular, then unify the forces in general. In the end, both fact and philosophy share a singular goal: elegance.
1.12 Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from them.
Be a disciple of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and attracting them to the study of Torah.
There’s a trend in following the Pikei Avot that I’ve come to love. It’s what begins almost every other teaching: the phrase …received the tradition from them. It brings to mind an image of bloodlines and lineages, but such of the spirit and the soul, not of the body. That this teaching—this entire Teaching, an entire Tradition—could be so passed down like genes and chromosomes, it’s stunning to think of it for a moment and wonder, who have I received the tradition from?