Be Like Hillel, Not Like Shammai: Lesson on Experience and Wisdom

A fundamental precept of Judaism is illustrated by the following story in the Talmud [Shabbos 31A]. A gentile approached Shammai and said to him: “Convert me but teach me the entire Torah as I stand on one foot.” Shammai, feeling that he wasn’t serious, chased him away. This gentile then approached Hillel with the same offer/request but was met with a very different reaction–Hillel agreed. The entire Torah on one foot that Hillel taught him was “that which you hate, don’t do to others–a paraphrase of the command to love your neighbor. “That is the entire Torah,” Hillel told him, “the rest is simply an explanation. Go and learn it!”

There were a couple of other patience-testing incidents with gentiles and Hillel’s gentle approach versus Shammai’s harsh approach teaches us that we should be like Hillel and not like Shammai.

However, I believe that this lesson of “Torah on one foot” ties in more with Hillel/Shammai than meets the eye. From Hillel we can learn that his patience and short answer indicated that:

  1. He knew the Torah REALLY well to make such a bold statement (Einstein knew this when he said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”),
  2. He had enough experience and wisdom in dealing with others to be calm and gentle, and
  3. He appreciated each person at his own personal level, and tried to get one to fulfill ones personal potential, not his.

This would therefore imply that Shammai possessed (or lacked) the following:

  1. He lacked Torah knowledge well enough to explain the whole Torah on one foot,
  2. He lacked patience, implying his lack of experience in socializing with others, presumably since he was in the Beis Midrash (study hall) all the time, and
  3. He wanted people to reach his own personal level, not accepting second-best (sort of like Communism).
Shammai

A Drawing of Shammai driving away a gentile – something we are taught not to do.

I feel that this applies to many many situations here:

  1. Many families break apart because parents lack the experience and knowledge to love each child on each ones individual level. Instead, parents should show children how much they love them, and once in a while pick up a parenting book to the point where they know “parenting on one foot.” Don’t be a communist when it comes to your children!
  2. With coworkers, especially the challenging ones, when a co-worker/trainee is slow to understanding something or always interrupts, we should all try to “blow up” less and convey in a calmer manner that in a place of work one should work, not interrupt. With slowness in understanding, tell them to ask questions at set times rather than interrupting one haphazardly. It’s unhealthy and they need to know that without breaking down.
  3. With some other co-workers, there are those that are very secretive about everything and those that are very open/transparent. From personal experience, I found that those that are cagey and hide things either have a “mess to clean up,” or are lacking in experience and try to make up for it by hiding things behind big-sounding words.
  4. Say things in a calm, uplifting manner rather than focusing on the bad. Drawing from past personal experience, when my wife and I were expecting our second child and received notice about a rare heart defect that unfortunately took his life at 1.5 months, we were crushed. To make matters worse, a doctor who told us the details of this disease scared us into praying (yeah, he’s going to Heaven because of that) by saying pessimistic things like “if the child is lucky he will live to 10 years,” “a heart defect doesn’t warrant a transplant since that causes it’s own set of issues which will affect quality of life (so you’re damned if you go damned if you don’t),” etc. Later on when an additional complication was found in that heart which required an extremely rare in-utero procedure on the child’s heart, a different doctor explained the facts in a more cheerful manner. When we told him about the pessimistic doctor, he replied, “oh him? He’s one of our more junior staff.” Doctor A scared us away from him, while doctor B (I’m not saying names due to possible confidentiality and embarrassment issues) was more cheerful. We should all learn from that.

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