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Commentary on Tanakh Class May 3, 2021: Pirkei Avot (Continued)

Don Perlmutter

Hillel lived in the last century before the Common Era and was considered one of the great scholars and Jewish sages. He contributed heavily to the development of the Mishna and Talmud. Among other things, his legacy was the wise advice he imparted to his many students. His teachings reveal a keen insight into human motivations and can be applied in any age as a guide for leading an ethical and fulfilling life.

Here are a few of Hillel’s teachings and a sample of what our group drew from them:

“He who is occupied with making his name great causes his name to be destroyed.”
We see repeatedly in celebrities and our leaders a pursuit of fame and recognition as an end to itself. We concluded that those who make substantive contributions will achieve lasting recognition even though they may not seek it.  

“If you do not increase your knowledge, you reduce it.”
In other words, knowledge has a half-life or an obsolescence factor. It becomes less useful over time. As new knowledge emerges, you must incorporate it or risk becoming outmoded. The other aspect to this maxim is that your capacity to learn may become diminished if you do not “exercise” it. We discussed how resistance to accepting new information or novel approaches to social issues is a universal human trait. People become comfortable with what they know and are threatened by the unfamiliar. An example is Fundamentalist thinking in religion when the Bible or Torah is used to justify no new learning.  

“One who abuses an honored position will pass away.”
Again, we hear Hillel cautioning against unethical or antisocial behavior. His recurring theme is that bad behavior is ultimately self-destructive. It is in one’s self-interest to avoid it. 

The Famous Three Questions:

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then who am I?"
This well-known quotation is about self-respect tempered by humility. You must care first for yourself if you are to serve others. Consistent with this, Hillel considered attending to one’s own health needs to be a mitzvah. 

"If not now, when?”
This advice recognizes the pernicious effect of procrastination.  

Finally, we learned that rabbis in Hillel’s time were not “ivory tower” teachers. They had “day jobs” which gave them real life experience and an income. Maybe man cannot live by bread alone, but even rabbis do need the bread...

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782