Hillel’s Three Questions (High Holydays 5772 / 2011)

An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

“How are you, ma?”

“So how should I be?”

Instead of answering her son’s question with a direct statement—“I feel lousy!”—she answers his question with another question, as if to say, “Why are you asking me? Use you eyes, use your head, and you won’t have to ask such a question. In other words, “Just look, and you’ll see how I am.” This mama is hurting, and she is feeling sorry for herself, and she is hostile.

This style of communication was prominent in the Yiddish-speaking culture of Eastern Europe. Scholars tell us that it most probably derived from the tradition of Talmudic argument and debate. The three questions that are the theme of this year’s High Holy Days come from one of the founders of Talmudic Judaism, Hillel the Elder.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?”

Just as the mother’s answer to the son’s query, though framed as a question, is really a declaration in disguise, so Hillel’s three questions are really rhetorical in nature. In other words, they have built-in answers. They could have also been stated:

Look after yourself.
Take care of others.
Do it now.

So why then does Hillel frame them as questions? I could answer, “Why not?” but I won’t. I believe he does this to model self-inquiry, which is why they are so relevant to the High Holy Days. He’s asking us to apply these questions as we examine our own lives.

Hillel’s teaching is found in the tractate of the Mishnah known as Pirkei Avot, which I would freely translate as the “The Wisdom of the Founders.” This is a collection of the quintessential teachings of the sages who lived from the first century before the Common Era through the second century of the Common Era.

To understand Hillel’s insight in greater depth, I examined no less than 13 commentaries, yet I found nothing that added to the self-evident meaning of the questions themselves. Well, I thought, my Rosh Hashanah sermon is going to be very short!

But I knew that there had to be more to the teaching than was evident on the surface. After all, Hillel was an original, the greatest teacher of his generation, a man whose outlook on Judaism was to influence virtually every sage of the Talmud—and therefore the future of Judaism. To comprehend the underlying meaning of his three questions, we will have to learn something about his life and his spiritual path.

We know that Hillel was born in Babylonia—modern day Iraq—sometime during the first century before the Common Era. He was passionate about learning, and he emigrated to Israel when he was young in order to study with the greatest Pharisee teachers of his generation, Shemayah and Avtalion.

When he arrived in Jerusalem, Hillel was very poor. He became a day laborer, primarily a woodcutter, and he earned the equivalent of a few dollars a day. Half of this he spent for his family’s food and shelter, and the other half to obtain entrance to the House of Learning.

In the course of years, Hillel rose to become the nasi, the president of the Sanhedrin—the chief legislative and executive body of the Jewish people. He served in this function for 40 years, from the year 30 before the Common Era to the year 10 of the Common Era. As an interpreter of the tradition and as a lawmaker he demonstrated great ingenuity and daring, pioneering the notion of tikkun olam in formulating laws. He was not averse to altering biblical laws in order to make the Torah relevant for his own time. His legal opinions demonstrate his devotion to the cause of the poor and the broken.

If you think that Hillel was politically radical, advocating revolutionary social change, you would be wrong. He couldn’t afford to. Such advocacy would have probably meant his death, for he lived during the reign of the Jewish king, Herod the Great. Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem into a grandiose edifice. He turned Jerusalem into a cosmopolitan center highlighting Greek and Roman values. But Herod was a despot, cold, calculating and cruel, and he dealt brutally with anyone who stood in his way, even murdering his own wife and children and the members of her family. And he acted this way with anyone who might have protested his policies. His long reign reads like a version of the old television series, I Claudius.

But Hillel was another kind of revolutionary. He championed the way of non-violence, compassion, gentleness and civil discourse. He taught the doing of good regardless of the social and political circumstances. And so Herod basically left him and the Pharisees alone, while Hillel and his contemporaries quietly built a community of resistance. While honoring the Temple, this community was based in the House of Learning and the synagogue, and it nurtured an alternative consciousness based on those values of the Torah that Hillel cherished. It was this Pharisaic community that survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and Judea a half century after Hillel’s death, preserving Judaism through the ages into modern times.

Hillel’s ideal was not Moses, for he was neither a liberator, nor a prophet, nor a warrior. His model of leadership was Moses’ brother, Aaron. Hillel taught: “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow human beings and bringing them close to the Torah.” Notice that Hillel does not speak about the love of Jews, or the love of God in this teaching. Instead he emphasizes love for all people. Yitzhak Buxbaum writes that Hillel focused on the love of human beings because he so much identified love of God with love of people, and believed that the basic way to express love of God is by loving people.” He believed that the Torah had universal relevance, that it contained the ethical and spiritual wisdom needed to refine human character, enabling people to live in peace and harmony with one another.

Hillel didn’t believe in waiting for the messiah to change the world. Instead, he taught, “In a place where no one is acting in a human way, strive to be a human being.” Anchored in the present, Hillel lived the love and peace that he so fervently affirmed. If he were alive today, and living in the State of Israel, I imagine that he might call for the creation of a non-violent solidarity movement of Jews and Arabs, that would stand up against the reactionary extremists on both sides, and all the crafty politicians, and call for the necessary compromises that would allow everyone to live together in peace.

Hillel’s great legal opponent was the sage, Shammai. The tradition highlights the difference between Hillel and Shammai, as we are told in what just might be the most famous story in the entire Talmud:

It once happened that a foreigner wanted to become a Jew. He went to Shammai, and said to him: “I will become a Jew if you teach me the entire Torah while I’m standing here on one foot.” Shammai was furious, hit him, and chased him away.

The man then went to Hillel, and asked him the same question. Hillel immediately made him a Jew, and told him: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go, and study.”

Some of us have read this humorous teaching so many times that we haven’t noticed its ground-breaking character. Judaism was a complicated religion, with 613 mitzvot covering civil, criminal, religious and temple law, along with a complex array of religious beliefs. But Hillel was able to cut through the immense complexity of the Mosaic Torah, isolating the elemental moral essence of Jewish teaching. “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” Look inside yourself. Ask yourself what kind of treatment makes you miserable. Now when you see another human being, put yourself in his or her shoes, and ask that same question. In this way you will learn how to treat other people with genuine love.

Notice that Hillel does not directly refer here to our responsibilities toward God, although it is clear from other stories that he had a profound relationship with the Divine. But he believed that not harming others is the foundation on which the rest of the Torah was built, because he understood that every human being was created in the Divine image. I believe that Hillel may have been Judaism’s first religious humanist.

The tale portrays Shammai as angry, arrogant and judgmental. And it characterizes Hillel as patient, humble, and non-judgmental. Other Talmudic traditions reveal Shammai as having been a social conservative who focused on the rigid application of the law, while portraying Hillel as more liberal and imaginative when it came to interpreting and renewing Jewish tradition. Shammai’s legal opinions seem to represent the cause of the wealthy, while Hillel stands for the poor. In most instances, the laws were decided in accord with Hillel’s views.

Now that we have this background, let us look at Hillel’s three questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” One important statement about Hillel in the Talmud claims that all of Hillel’s deeds were done for the sake of Heaven, that is, for God. How could being for oneself also mean being for God?

Let me share another story that will, I believe, shed light on Hillel’s first question. “Once when Hillel was taking leave of his students, they asked him, ‘Where are you going now?’ He answered: ‘To perform a mitzvah.’ They asked him: ‘And what is the mitzvah?’ He replied, ‘To bathe in the bathhouse.’ They asked him: ‘And is bathing a mitzvah?’ He answered: ‘It is. There are statues of the emperor erected in all the Roman theatres and circuses, and servants are required to wash these images regularly. But the Torah teaches that every human being was created in the image of God. If this is so, shouldn’t we, who are made in God’s likeness, take care of our bodies?”

This story casts light on the meaning of Hillel’s first question: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” What is the “I” that Hillel is referring to? Not the self-centered ego. The “I” of the first question is the “I” of self-respect. Self-respect because each of us is created in the image of the Divine, and each of us contains, at our core, something of the source and essence of the creativity and intelligence—and yes, the sacred physicality—of the universe as a whole. Hillel is saying that because the Divine is imprinted on us, we must treat ourselves with the reverence we have for God.

In his first question, then, Hillel is referring to this larger sense of self, the image of God that is the hallmark and essence of our individual humanity. So I would elaborate Hillel’s question in the following way: If I don’t take responsibility for cultivating the spiritual, moral and creative potential of my self, which was God’s gift to me as a human being, then it will not come into being, for no one else will do this work for me.

Since Hillel’s questions were meant for self-inquiry, I tried a little exercise. I considered a difficult personal question that I have been attempting to deal with for a long time, a question not unrelated to the story about Hillel going to the bath house. I thought about my relationship with my body, with food, with exercise, with the inevitable difficulties and deterioration that come with aging. And most of all, with my resistance to dealing with these issues. I closed my eyes and imagined that Hillel was standing before me. In my mind’s eye I spoke to him about these issues. And then I allowed him to ask his first question of me.

“Burt Jacobson, if you are not for yourself—your greater Self, made in the image of the Divine—then who will be for you?”

Ahhhh… yes. And then the issue became clear for me. If I continue to resist, if I fail to come to terms with my responsibility for my body, then I am not honoring and respecting my own divinity. I can meditate and pray and think about theological issues and serve my congregation and engage in tikkun olam and write my book, but I am failing to take responsibility for God’s gift to me of my body. My teshuvah work for this High Holy Day period became evident.

So now we turn to the second question? “But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Here I believe that Hillel is using the pronoun “I” in an entirely different manner than he did in the first question. The “I” that Hillel is speaking about in the second question is the smaller “I,” the self-aggrandizing ego. Let me try to paraphrase his question: “If I limit my identity to my ego, if all I seek is my piece of the pie, whatever that is—money, fame, sex—then I have cut myself off from my larger “I,” from my divine potential, and my connection with my community.

Let go of your self-centeredness, Hillel seems to be saying. Open yourself to other people who, like you, have also been created in the image of God. Open yourself to the world, and engage in tikkun olam. There is so much that needs repair, from the environment to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Open yourself to the vast Mystery of existence and begin to cultivate a deeper relationship with Spirit or with God or with the vast wonder of the Universe. Develop regular spiritual practices that can bring you into a relationship with a Reality that is greater than your small self, that can lift you beyond the fragmentation of daily life to a place of utter wholeness and unity. Deepen your sense of gratitude and joy. Learn how to infuse the mundane world with a realization of its underlying holiness.

Well, this is a tall order. Let me think it over. Is this for me? I have so much on my plate already! But Hillel has anticipated my desire to procrastinate, and he doesn’t give me time to breathe. “And if not now, when?” Be here now! You have only a finite number of moments in your life. Don’t waste this moment! Treat yourself right now as an image of the Divine. Open to your larger self. Take responsibility for cultivating your spiritual and moral potential.

And this is the opportunity that these Days of Awe offer you. This is the time that you can engage in the work of teshuvah that will allow you to move from your identity with your smaller self toward a recognition of the greater self you can become.

“V’im lo akhshav, aimatai? . . . And if not now, when?”

I’d like to close tonight with an exercise. First, turn in your prayerbooks to page 31. . . and leave your prayerbooks on your laps. If you feel comfortable doing so, close your eyes… Imagine that Hillel the Elder is standing before you… Can you find one issue that you need to work on during this High Holy Day period?… It could be a personal issue, or family or social or spiritual issue… Please take a few minutes of silence now to frame the issue…… Now let Hillel speak your name… and ask you his three questions:

“If you are not for yourself, who will be for you?
But if you are only for yourself, what are you?
And if not now, when?”

1 Comment

  1. Jewish American peace activists interrupt High Holdays with protest - Waging Nonviolence
    October 4, 2014

    […] sprung up this summer during the most recent war in Gaza. Taking their name from Rabbi Hillel’s three questions, the group held similar religiously themed actions — including civil disobedience — outside of […]

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