There was another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand.
The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.
Tractate Shabbat 31a
In Tractate Shabbat, the Gemara tells of a man who came to Shammai and asked to convert to Judaism but makes his request conditional – “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot”.
Shammai pushes the man away.
The same man continues on his way and comes to Hillel, who teaches him “that which is hateful to you, don’t do to another person”. Hillel adds that this teaching is the whole Torah. The rest, he explains, is interpretation – “go learn”.
Many different explanations are offered for Hillel’s response. How can his statement, beautiful though it may be, contain the entire Torah? Even less understandable in this whole story is the strange question that is asked. Why is it important for a person to learn the whole Torah while standing on one foot? And why does Shammai push him away? Wouldn’t it have been enough to simply not answer?
I heard an explanation once that really touched me.
People differ from one another. Every person has many different qualities and every person has weaknesses and strengths. When a person seeks a path for himself, he needs to first check if it’s appropriate for him. “Am I right for this path? Will my qualities allow me to fulfill the tasks I’m taking upon myself?” When I want to begin a certain type of learning – a sport, or a diet – or alternatively, if I am trying to stop smoking, it would be unwise not to consider whether the program or plan fits my abilities.
The man who comes to Shammai wants to convert, he likes Judaism, but he knows his limitations. He knows that he cannot always “stand on two legs” because stability is not one of his strengths.
So he asks, “can I learn Torah even when I am less stable?”
And Shammai answers him with a simple demonstration. With just a small push, Shammai shows him how much steadiness is required in the face of the unknown. Shammai proves to him that he has little chance of standing up against the questions and upheaval that his new path will place before him. Two strong legs are needed, he is saying, or don’t even bother trying.
In contrast, Hillel teaches the man that only one thing is needed for stability – empathy. Empathy offers the strong foundation needed for stability. From the moment you care about others, Hillel is saying, you are already there and from that point on, you will have no problem on your journey. Yes, you might still fall sometimes, and you might find that you don’t accomplish everything in your plan. But this doesn’t mean that you have nothing, because you are already there, on your own path.
Dear friends, we are about to begin the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday of the Giving of the Torah. This holiday symbolizes our ability to choose our own path.
We have been through a difficult period, a period in which almost everything around us that was steady and stable became unhinged. But we don’t need anything else in order to accept the Torah. The Torah was given in the desert, when we had yet to receive a single piece of land, when we were cut off from our past, from the land in which we were raised, and still very far from our long sought-after goal.
The Torah is not the end of the journey. Just the opposite – the Torah is the guide to the journey, for each of our journeys. And all that’s needed to begin a journey is faith in the path and belief in one’s own ability to stick to that path, not to lose one’s direction and aspirations, despite all of the obstacles that may stand in the way.
I hope that our experiences over the last two months did not just weaken the pillars which support us but also strengthened each of our personal foundations, each in our way.
I wish us all a meaningful holiday, and that all of the imbalance we experienced, all of the standing on one foot that we withstood, will help us be more decisive and clearer about what is truly important to us. And may we be privileged to follow our paths, each in our own unique way.