Inhabiting a Word

Once the Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples how they should read scripture. “If a man really wants to understand a word in scripture,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”

This confused the disciples so that one of them asked, “Teacher, is it not impossible for a grown man to enter into a small word?”

The Rabbi Eliezer smiled and his voice grew quiet. “I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words.”

According to the ninth chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” “Fear of The Lord” is a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures that means something like “humility before God.” The way of wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that God is greater than we are and that his word is greater than we are. Rabbi Eliezer, in this wonderful little story from the Babylonian Talmud, is reminding his students that they must search scripture in a posture of humility. They must be willing to not see themselves as the consumers but the consumed. Liberals and conservatives, allegorists and literalists, are all guilty of bending and contorting scripture to fit their own desires and agendas rather than bending their desires and agendas to fit scripture. When we come to scripture with preconceived notions and search out those verses that agree with us, then we see ourselves as giants towering over the book. How foolish. Do we not know that God made man small enough to fit inside one tiny word?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

Standing On One Foot

During the period of the second temple, there was a gentile man who decided to devote himself to becoming a Jew. He had heard that the two greatest teachers of Judaism living in Jerusalem were Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. The man was unsure of which Rabbi to study under so he devised a test to choose his teacher

First, the man knocked on the door of Rabbi Shammai. When Shammai came to the door, the man said, “I am interested in becoming a Jew but I don't nearly have the time to devote to it that your followers do. Could you please sum up the Torah while I stand on one foot?”

Shammai replied, “What a ridiculous request! Look at all my students studying inside! They have devoted their entire lives to reading Torah and you propose to learn it in mere seconds? Begone!”

So the man continued on to Rabbi Hillel's house and knocked on the door. When Hillel opened the door, the man again said, “I am interested in becoming a Jew but I don't nearly have the time to devote to it that your followers do. Could you please sum up the Torah while I stand on one foot?

Hillel thought for a second, then said, “Alright.” As the man stood on his one foot, Hillel spoke these words: “That which you hate, do not do to your neighbor. This sums up the entire Torah and the rest is just commentary.

When the man put his other foot back down, he entered Hillel's home and became one of his most devoted disciples.

Most of the world's religions have some version of the “golden rule” and yet the world continues to be rife with conflict. For the Christian, loving God and loving neighbor ought to be the twin poles that keep us oriented and yet we too often fail at the latter out of our zeal for the former. Loving others is the essence of loving God. Doing good is the essence of serving God. The Torah (and indeed the Christian scriptures) are summed up in the call to “do unto other as you would have them do unto you.” The rest, as Hillel reminds us, is just commentary

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…