Is it better not to be born?

Life would be easier if we had never been born. That, it seems, is the consensus of our sages. The Talmud records a fascinating debate between the famous schools of Hillel and Shammai.

The Hillelian Academy argued in favour of humans. Shammai’s students argued that life would be simpler had we never been birthed. On the face of it, Shammai’s idealistic students are cynical of human endeavour. They know we are more likely to fail than succeed, so our souls would be safer in Heaven. Hillel scholars are more tolerant of the human condition and argue that G-d loves our hackneyed attempts at spiritual development. The Talmud concludes that the sages concurred with Shammai’s prospect in theory but suggested we do our best to make our existence meaningful.

On analysis, we find the respective philosophies of the two academies to be more nuanced than they appear.

Hillel and Shammai did not engage in hypothetical polemics. Each had a well-established philosophy about Jewish law that pervaded all their disagreements.

A key theme in the Hillel and Shammai debates is whether Jewish law determines legal status based on reality or potential. Shammai’s school believes we decide the law based on what could or should be. Hillel’s academy defines the law based on what is.

For example, Beit Shammai rules that we should light eight lights on the first night of Chanukah, implying that the holiday offers eight days of spiritual potential. Hillel’s school legislates that we light a single lamp on Night Number One because we have only accessed one day of Chanukah energy by then.

Another example relates to the laws of impurity. Certain liquids are susceptible to becoming ritually impure, honey being one of them. The question is, at what point is honey legally considered a liquid? The Shammai scholars say that when you decide to extract honey from the hive, the honeycomb can be contaminated. Hillel’s followers only consider it honey after you crack open the honeycomb.

Hillel and Shammai view humans along similar lines. From Shammai’s perspective, our souls carry tremendous potential to align with the Divine purpose. Shammai argues that we need not enter the physical form to prove our soul’s power because our soul’s potential is compelling enough. Hillel counters that our soul’s potential is impotent until we live as humans in sync with G-d’s intentions.

Shammai’s students say had humans not been created, our wayward choices would never ruin our soul’s potential. Hillel’s followers agree that life would be easier if we remained floating in heaven, but our potential would remain untapped.

Shammai argues that we would be better off uncreated, and Hillel recoils at the suggestion.
G-d, it would seem, sided with the Hillel clan. After all, we are here, are we not? Why did the rabbis vote for Shammai’s suggestion? You cannot argue theory against G-d’s actual decision.

Digging even deeper into the debate, we discover that the question at the core of their disagreement is the age-old, “Why are we here?”.

Many religious Jews claim that we spend our three-score-and-ten chalking up points so we can benefit from the supernal rewards programme available in the next life. For those less ethereally inclined, life is about living as a mentsch and making a difference.

Judaism says none of the above. G-d is infinite, and we are finite. Nothing we do can justify why Infinite G-d was inclined to create us. We are not here to rack up World to Come vouchers or to make it to the Humanitarian Hall of Fame. We are here to bring G-d’s dream to life. That dream, says the Midrash, is to achieve the impossible: A home for G-d’s boundless reality in our very constrained world. Shammai says this is all that counts. The side benefits of quality family time over Shabbos or front-row seats in Paradise are irrelevant. Life is about taking G-d’s plan over the finish line. We gain nothing by being created. It is all for the Boss.

Hillel agrees that we should aspire, as Maimonides puts it, “To do what is True because it is True, without expectation of reward.” Hillel adds a caveat: At our core, we are Divine. Our soul is a slice of Infinite G-d. Our growth is meaningful to Hashem, and when we follow G-d’s roadmap, it gives him endless nachas. We are liable to mess up along the way, but whenever we align with the Divine, we bring infinite joy to the One Above.

So, our sages conclude that if it were up to us, we’d never agree to be born. Life in Heaven is far easier than it is here. But He didn’t ask us. He wanted us to benefit from the challenge and opportunity of struggling and succeeding, feeling distracted but never disconnected. Life would be easier if it never started. Now that we’re living it, we ought to make it count.

Based on a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler is the director of Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group. Rabbi Shishler is also a special needs father. His daughter, Shaina has an ultra-rare neuroegenratove condition called BPAN. Rabbi Shishler shares Shaina's story and lessons about kindness and disability inclusion on his other blog, "Shaina's Brocha" and through lectures and Kindness Cookies teambuilding workshops.
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