Rabbi Philip Weintraub
January 8, 2021
Shemot and Pirkei Avot 1:12
The first chapter of Pirkei Avot speaks of the chain of tradition. From generation to generation, we see how Torah is received and shared. In each generation we uphold Torah by lifting up the ideas that are needed in that generation. We are not erasing or changing the Torah, but highlighting what is needed. Hillel and Shammai lived in the time of Herod, following Shemaya and Avtaylon, yet still a very contentious time in Jewish history. There were numerous sects and offshoots of Judaism vying for influence. Together Hillel and Shammai established two powerful schools of thought, while retaining a close relationship. Even as they had significant differences of opinion on ritual matters, they shared great passion for our faith and worked towards the unity of Jewish peoplehood.
From R. Ovadiah m’Bartenura (15th century Italy) quoted this verse and reminded us of another early text:
"Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace": They explained in Avot DeRabbi Natan how Aharon loved peace: When he would see two people quarreling, he would go to each one of them without the knowledge of his fellow and say to him, “Behold how your fellow is regretting and afflicting himself that he sinned against you; and he told me that I should come to you so that you will forgive him. And as a result of this, when they bumped into each other, they would kiss each other. And how would he bring people closer to the Torah? When he would know about someone that he committed a sin, he would befriend him and show him a friendly demeanor; and that man would be embarrassed and say [to himself], “If that righteous man would know my evil deeds, how much would he distance himself from me? And as a result of this, [that man] would change for the better. And this is what the prophet testifies about [Aharon] (Malachi 2), “In peace and in straightness did he walk with Me and he brought back many from sinning." (www.sefaria.org)
I cannot think of words more appropriate for this moment. Neither Hillel nor Aaron (Moses’ brother and the high priest) tolerated sin. Yet they found ways of bringing people back into the fold. They looked for ways of pursuing peace, of creating collaboration.
In this moment, that lesson seems vital. We live in a world that feels more divided than ever. We can no longer speak rationally about so many issues. For the last eleven weeks, I have been teaching from JTS a curriculum highlighting disputes and disagreements in Jewish tradition. The overarching lesson has been that diversity of opinion has made us stronger--not weaker. Yet even there, boundaries remain vital. There are limits to pursuing peace. As Abba Eben once said, “we don't make peace with friends, we make peace with enemies.” Yet he also said “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
In these times, we need to step back from the brink. We must find ways to remember the humanity of all. Yet, we cannot dialogue with someone who wishes us dead. It’s complicated--just like our Torah.
Hillel and Shammai had deep disagreements--but both agreed in the validity of Torah. Both agreed on the importance of our sacred traditions. Both agreed in the holiness of God and humanity. They believed in the same Truth--with a capital T. My prayer for this week and always is that all of us can find our way back to real facts and real truth--in that way we can have civil disagreements and work to build a better society.
Delivered at 29 minutes and 18 seconds (29:18)