“And your eyes shall see your teacher.”
I have written extensively about the importance of crossing political, personal, racial and religious divides in order to understand divergent perspectives and points of view. It is the quintessential lesson gleaned from all the Talmud readings to date, because the Rabbis always have another opinion. And for every opinion there is another one and even another one.
There are pairs of Rabbis who spent their lives debating topics and yet also had the closest of personal relationships. These pairs include Rav and Shmuel and Hillel and Shammai who often enter the daily text in the middle of intense discussions. I imagine a Samuel Beckett play where Rabbis wander on-stage with their sometimes odd pronouncements; once the Rabbis leave the stage we are left with a quiet moment to decipher what we just heard. Is there deeper meaning in the Rabbis’ words than just a discussion of how to position a crossbeam in an alleyway?
Today we are told that a particular dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel ensued for three years regarding positioning in a sukkot. Let me take you to a theater in New York City where for a brief moment the lights come back on and dust is swept away from the entrance. The curtain goes up and in the center of the stage is a sukkot with a man siting mostly in it, but with a stretched leg resting outside the structure and under a table that is in an adjacent shack. The sukkot and hut are resting next to each other. Each Rabbi enters the stage and observes the sukkot and the man with the outstretched leg and makes a determination. Shammai says the Sukkot is invalid and exits stage left.
Hillel faces the audience and relates a story about a time when he and Shammai visited Rabbi Yoḥanan ben HaḤoranit who was sitting in the same way as the scene we are viewing center stage, with his head and most of his body in a sukkot and a stretched-out leg under an adjacent structure. He directly asks the audience as he breaks through the fourth wall: “From there do you seek to adduce a proof?” This being the Talmud and a Samuel Becket play, it is unclear what Hillel is really asking. But a voice is boomed from above that says that since Hillel has shown such deference to the opinion of Shammai, the matter is settled in accordance with his position.
No one in the audience is very clear on what precise matter has been settled, but a message has been delivered on the importance of maintaining an open mind and respecting the opinion of others. We are presented with a lesson of humility. We are told that “anyone who humbles himself” is destined for greatness, while anyone who seeks greatness will find it elusive. We are also presented with a lesson in patience and hard work which is something most of us learn the hard way: “Anyone who attempts to force the moment and expends great effort to achieve an objective precisely when he desires to do so, the moment forces him too, and he is unsuccessful. And conversely, anyone who is patient and yields to the moment, the moment stands by his side, and he will ultimately be successful.”
Our play continues to the final act with an existential question posed by a chorus of voices from offstage which tells us that for two and half years Shammai and Hillel have argued over whether man should have been created. One half of the chorus says it is better that he is here than to have never been born, while the other says that it is better if he had never graced the earth with his presence. The two sections of the chorus proclaim in unified voices that since man is already here, the argument can never be settled. There is a request from the chorus that a representative man enter center stage and examine the impact of his actions on earth (and to the earth.) There is a brief pause before it becomes clear that no such man is going to appear. And who would be brave enough to stand before the audience and take on the heavy weight of accounting for all of man’s sins?
And the play ends with a last statement from the chorus: “Shall we go? Yes, let’s go.’