Hillel: A Sage for All Seasons…and for a Pandemic

A reflection from Avi West, Master Teacher, Federation’s Department of Jewish Leadership & Learning 

Little girl is sitting and reading a holy book. Concept for faith, hope and spirituality.The coronavirus pandemic has upended our very way of life as a community and unleashed a cascade of crises affecting individuals and society as a whole. Throughout the public health emergency, economic fallout, and protests for racial justice, we have all been looking for sage leadership to help us figure out how what we, as individuals, are supposed to do.

For guidance on our modern-day challenges, there is much wisdom to be had from the teachings of our ancient scholars. Right now, I can’t help but hear the exhortation of the remarkable sage Hillel: “Where none are real persons, endeavor yourself to be one.” This is a call for character and integrity, courage and authenticity. It is a call to each individual to step up and be a mensch (a kind and decent person). With all the challenges we face as individuals, as a community, and as a country, it is worthwhile to pause and reflect on the life, wisdom, and leadership of Hillel the Elder. He is one of the great founders of rabbinic Judaism and offered timeless wisdom in an age that was just as chaotic and filled with social upheaval as ours.

Hillel (110 BCE – 10 CE) was Babylonian by birth and, according to tradition, belonged to the family of King David. Rabbinic texts align the periods of Hillel’s life to those of Moses. Both lived to be 120 years old; at the age of 40, Hillel went to Palestine, where he spent 40 years in study. And during the last third of his life, he served as the spiritual head of Israel. Many of his wise statements are preserved in Pirkei Avot, the Mishna (commentary on the Torah) referred to as Ethics of the Sages, where the debates of Hillel and his legal sparring partner, Shammai, are recorded. Examining Hillel’s words of wisdom will show how prescient he was and how relevant our ancient texts can be.

Hillel created a guiding “balance beam” for being a mensch in the world. He would say, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” While looking out for ourselves is a normal human trait, Hillel warns against selfishness and blindness to the needs of others. I can hear him advising us to wear a mask and adhere to physical distancing not only to protect ourselves, but in order to protect those around us. You can self-advocate for justice and equality, but joining coalitions on behalf of others is a righteous way to raise all boats.

Economic challenge was not a foreign concept for Hillel. Jewish law mandates the releasing of all debts every seventh year, which brought about the harmful consequence that people refused to loan to one another. Hillel came up with a solution that protected the rich against loss of property and enabled the poor to obtain a loan whenever they needed it. Hillel would approve granting interest-free loans to help families affected by the economic crisis. That’s menschy behavior.

And what would Hillel make of all the hand washing? When questioned by his students about “wasting” time going to the bathhouse when he could be studying Torah, Hillel told his disciples that he considered bathing in the communal bathhouse a religious duty. Just as the custodians scour and wash the statues of the kings, likewise humans, created in God’s image and likeness, must do the same for their bodies. Cleanliness really is next to Godliness!

Hillel had much to say on the subject of equity—or rather, he let his actions speak for him. In the 1st century BCE, Torah study was tightly controlled and limited only to those of the highest caliber—and to those who could pay for it. Hillel, working then as a woodchopper, did not have enough money to pay for entry into the beit midrash (place of learning). On a cold, snowy day, he climbed onto the roof and lay at the skylight, listening to the lecture, until he froze. When the scholars below observed his form above, they retrieved him, and changed the policy to allow anyone who wished to enter and study Torah. Here we see Hillel’s willingness to break with the establishment to create a more inclusive community.

Even today, when so many actions are politicized, from attending a rally to wearing a mask, we can find common ground in the values Hillel articulated so beautifully. Hillel entreats us to “love peace” (ohev shalom), “pursue peace” (rodef shalom), “love people” (adat reyim), and “draw near to Torah” (shaare Torah).” These phrases have become namesakes to many local congregations and have become platforms for menschy behavior in our community.

When we find ourselves overwhelmed by communal politics or difficult neighbors with whom we don’t see eye to eye, Hillel models patience for us. There is a story of a person who came before Shammai and said, “I will convert if you can teach me the entire Torah on one foot!” Thinking this challenge impossible, Shammai drove him away. But Hillel accepted the challenge, hopped on one foot, and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. NOW GO AND LEARN AND APPLY IT FURTHER!” When we engage in difficult conversations, we must understand the real question behind what is asked, respond to it with openness and focus, and then help the person become more independent on their journey for knowledge and identity.

So, in these complex and “unprecedented times” as they are so often referred, it should be comforting to have an inspirational model of wise leadership like Hillel the Elder to remind us of what is truly important and how we should act in this challenging moment.