Hillel said, do not separate from the community, do not trust yourself till the day you die, do not judge your fellow until you reach his place, do not make a statement which cannot be understood which will [only] later be understood, and do not say when I have free time I will learn, lest you not have free time.
Last week we discussed Hillel’s second principle — that we not trust ourselves till the day we die. As we explained, one should never feel so smug and holy in his accomplishments that he will never again slip. Not only will old challenges always return to haunt him, but he will have to grapple with the Talmud’s principle that the greater a person is, the stronger his “evil inclination” becomes (Sukkah 52a).
Last week we spent some time discussing and illustrating this concept. The greater a person is, the more strongly he will feel about his beliefs. And the more a person is convinced he is right, the more fanatically he will pursue his course of action. Such people can accomplish far more than the rest of us. They are believers, they are committed, and they are prepared to make sacrifices for what they hold sacred. If, however, their beliefs become ever so slightly corrupted, they become capable of the most awesome and terrible evil. When a man convinces himself he is acting in the name of G-d, anything goes. He can justify the most wicked and irreligious behavior because he is certain of his own sincerity and that this is just what G-d wants.
It’s been said that the greatest crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of religion. Now there are certainly many who hide manifest wickedness behind the banner of religion, but many of us do precisely the same in a far more subtle manner. Say I dislike someone. For most of us it would probably just simmer in our hearts and end with that. If, however, I convince myself that G-d does not like him — that he is not pious enough and he has all sorts of religious faults and heretical beliefs, then it’s a mitzvah (good deed) to hate him — and he’s fair game. The higher our own religious standards, the easier (and more tempting) it will be to find fault with others not so righteous. The more religious and sure of ourselves we are, the more we will justify — and be forced to justify — our behavior and convince ourselves of our sincerity. Trouble really begins when people know that they are right.
Last week we illustrated this principle with the fact that according to our tradition, some of the exceptions to the rule that “All Israel has a share in the World to Come” (Mishna Sanhedrin 10:1) were the greatest Torah scholars of all time — men such as King Jeroboam, Achitofel (a co-conspirator with Absalom in his rebellion against David), and Do’eg, chief adviser to King Saul. Precisely because of their greatness, they believed in themselves and their sincerity so totally that nothing would stand in their way. They, with all their great potential, brought about their own destruction.
There is a fascinating corollary to all of this which I’d like to touch on before concluding this topic. The Talmud tells us regarding many of the most wicked people in history, such as Sennacherib and Haman, that their descendants converted to Judaism and taught Torah in Israel (Sanhedrin 96b). The idea behind this is really the same as above. Most of us are admittedly average. We serve G-d to the best of our abilities, neither accomplishing so mightily nor falling too precipitously. We would have never wiped out the Priestly city of Nov, as did Do’eg, but neither are we likely to reach anywhere near Do’eg’s scholarship or passion for truth. For mediocrity never goes very far — neither towards the good nor the wicked.
But such men as Sennacherib and Haman — great in their wickedness — were different. Only a person of the most intense and passionate commitment could have threatened Israel or destroyed the Temple (and the Gentiles of the time knew just how spiritual an edifice it was). Such people were wholly wicked, to be sure. They earned no share in the World to Come — unlike we who will hopefully one day receive our modest shares. But they were hardly simple good-for-nothings. They possessed enormous potential — which they of course misused to the greatest degree possible. But G-d, so to speak, was interested in that kind of potential. We want to use potential, not simply destroy it. These men must have had some redeeming quality, some slight spark of goodness which G-d allowed to glow and be preserved. Eventually they had descendants who were ready and worthy to sublimate that same potential and bring it into Israel and the service of G-d.
Thus, our lesson: Great people have enormous potential. And sometimes the slightest alteration in course can turn it into awe-inspiring good or devastating evil.
And this is a lesson we must all carry with us. We all have just a little bit of greatness within us, certain special and unique talents G-d has blessed us with, with which we can make our own unique contribution to mankind. And those are the talents we must preserve and treasure. It is so easy and tempting to corrupt it all — to take whatever we are good at and look down upon others or selfishly use what we’ve got for our own benefit or pleasure. Or perhaps worst of all: we will attempt to deny it, losing ourselves in the crowd. The greater we are, the more we will want to misuse or deny it all. But these are the special gifts G-d has bequeathed to us, our own potential for greatness. And they must be nurtured and treasured till the day we die.
We finally move on to Hillel’s final words of advice, which we will cover quickly. Not judging your fellow until you reach his place implies we should basically never judge our fellow. No two people are truly alike — neither in background, nor in disposition, nor in so many other relevant factors. We never really know what our fellow is going through or what contributed to his poor life-decisions. We must attempt to help and guide others, but we must never condemn them simply because we would have never acted that way. (And, of course, recall what we just learned — that sometimes a person’s very greatness compels him to misuse or deny that greatness.)
“Do not make a statement which cannot be understood which will [only] later be understood:” This statement is cryptic, and different explanations are offered by the commentators. Maimonides understands this to be a warning that teachers do not teach in an unclear manner, so that their words are understood only later, after careful analysis. Rashi and Rabbeinu Yonah explain it to mean one should never divulge secrets. As King Solomon wrote, “…for a bird of the skies will carry the voice” (Koheles (Ecclesiastes) 10:20). As we all know, words, rumors, secrets all spread. There is virtually no such thing as telling “just one person” while keeping it a secret.
“Do not say when I have free time I will learn, lest you not have free time:” We discussed a similar statement earlier. Please see our discussion — Ch. 1, Mishna 15.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.