I always pictured Rabbi Shammai as a curmudgeon. Serious in all things and unrelenting in
what he sees as the highest standards in Jewish learning or practice. He was the rabbi in the
Talmud who insisted that we must never lie, that all things should be rigid and set, so that we had
something we could rely on. I can see his intense eyes, always looking at the concrete,
unrelenting words in a book. Hunched over a fraying tome of literature supported by the leather
stretched thickly across a well worn wooden desk. This is why it comes as no surprise to me that
when he is approached by a new student in a popular story in the Talmud, he already has a stick
in his hand ready to reprimand his disciples and would-be students. Rap them on the hands and
ratchet them up to what he deemed as his standards. In this story, this curious newcomer
approaches Rabbi Shammai and asks him “teach me the whole Torah while standing on one
foot.” Stick ready, Shammai shouts at him saying what a ridiculous request it is, and chases him
out of his school.
That same student goes across the street to the school of Rabbi Hillel, Shammai’s chief rival. He
opens the door, walks down the hall, into the main room and right up to Rabbi Hillel who is in
the middle of teaching something on the finer points of the commandment to love your neighbor
as yourself. Interrupting the great chacham, the wise teacher, he interjects “Rabbi Hillel, teach
me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel pauses a moment. He well knows
what a ridiculous request this is. You couldn’t even recite the whole Torah quickly enough to do
so while standing on one foot, let alone delve into its nuances and its true content. It’s not
uncommon to spend weeks on just one word or phrase in the Torah. But instead Rabbi Hillel
turns the question. He looks away from the cold words in the book front of him and sees the text
right there, in the life of this puzzled man. He returns the statement saying “what is hateful to
you do not do to another.” By saying this Hillel is telling this man, I cannot explain the entirety
of the Torah to you in such a short time. But this is the way I, Rabbi Hillel, am experiencing the
question. And at its core our Torah is about relating to each other, about knowing how the other
experiences the world, and so I will start by telling you how I experience your question.
Knowing full well that this statement doesn’t appear anywhere in the Torah he says “that is the
whole Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” There is the commandment to love your
neighbor as yourself, but Hillel changes that to match his experience. Rabbi Hillel boils the
entire Torah down to this: empathy. What is more, is that he embodies this teaching not only
telling, but showing how to learn the Torah. He asks the man to empathise with him. To
understand the Torah is to understand your fellow.
As a rule, we follow Rabbi Hillel and not Rabbi Shammai, who becomes a straw man of sorts in
our rabbinic lore. But true to his teaching Rabbi Hillel embodies the empathy he preaches. It
says in our Talmud that he always quotes his rival’s arguments before he presents his own. He
understood that at it’s core Judaism is a faith of empathy. And this is at the very core of what we
do every day. As Jews we believe that we are partners in the work of creation, every day
repairing the world to make it a better place for everyone in it, because we know that every
person in our world hurts, loves and laughs just the same as we do.
This is not at all easy to do. There are some genuinely difficult people in the world. Bullying is
rampant in schools and workplaces alike, brothers’ fight and sisters won’t meet at the table. I
spoke to someone recently whose brother won’t talk to him. He calls, leaves a message, and gets
no response. Calls again a day, a week, a month later, and his brother refuses to answer. How
do you treat someone as having a spark of the divine, how do you empathize when someone
mistreats their fellow? How do you act with empathy towards someone, when they will not act
with empathy towards you?
Isaac Asimov, the great science fiction writer was also a lover of thinking. He in fact wrote an
entire book of commentary on the Bible, and is a giant in a long line of great Jewish American
writers. In his robot stories he began to wonder about how a person should treat a robot. If you
think about it, a robot made to act like a human may seem happy or sad, may react to your
compliments or insults like a human, but ultimately it’s just a series of silicone switches inside
whatever artificial material they make machines out of. If you call a robot a name, its eyebrows
may furrow, lips may fall, but there’s no real feelings happening on the inside, it’s just a
computer with limbs. So how do you treat a machine, that seems like it feels, but doesn’t
Through his characters, Asimov reveals something profound. Looking from the outside we see
some characters that treat their robots kindly and others that treat them poorly. Regardless of
whether or not the robot is feeling, it causes us, the reader, to feel. How each person treats their
robot reveals their own humanity. The characters in the end of the book treat their robots well
not because of how the robots feel, but because of how it makes them feel to treat others in such
a way. Sometimes, empathy is a way for us to relate to how we feel ourselves. By reaching out
and relating to the experience of another, we discover more deeply how we feel.
When we are faced with interacting with someone who doesn’t treat us well, it is similarly an
opportunity to display our own humanity. Even when our own kindness doesn’t cause a change
in the person, even when that kindness is not reciprocated, it still gives each of us a chance to
display to ourselves what kind of a person we are. To be clear, this is not to say that we should
simply turn the other cheek. On the contrary, it is perfectly human to react to mistreatment with
hurt and anger. But when we are able to act with kindness it reflects on us. When we can’t treat
someone kindly, it makes it sadly harder to display the better part of our humanity.
The rabbis of the Talmud similarly talked about the importance of empathy even in difficult
situations. They explained that a person should not ask for forgiveness more than three times.
This is because we are commanded not to hate our neighbor in our hearts.
This is a profound comment on empathy in our tradition. If someone approaches us with a
genuine apology we are commanded to accept it. Similarly sensitive to the feelings of the person
receiving the apology our tradition gives leeway. Allowing for us to reject these apologies twice
so that we may do the internal work we need to find it in our hearts to forgive, but ultimately we
are commanded to forgive, we are commanded to empathy.
As the High Holy Days approach, I encourage us all to take this commandment to heart: “love
your neighbor as yourself.” We have all done things to hurt the people in our lives. The month
of Elul, leading up to the High Holy Days, is a time of reflection, the High Holy Days are a time
of forgiveness. Ask for that forgiveness, and may we all find it in our hearts to forgive those
who ask it. As it is not just a part of our tradition, it is the whole Torah.