Sunday, December 11, 2022

Avot 1:12 Living in Peace with One Another and All of the Creation

Avot 1:12Hillel says: Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the Creation and bringing them closer to the Torah. 

Hillel is one of the best-known rabbinic sages, and this is one of his most cited teachings.  Many commentators have noted that the doubling—love and pursue—emphasizes the imperative of peacemaking.  It is not enough to maintain harmony in our own circles; we are, instead, obligated to actively seek peace between all of our fellow human beings.  

Far less attention has been paid to the second half of this passage, which has often been mistranslated as “loving people.”  But the Hebrew—briyot—refers to the entirety of Creation: plants, animals, insects, rocks, rivers—everything.  True peace—or, in the deeper meaning of the word shalom, wholeness—means living in concord with the entirety of the natural world.  

Philosopher David Abram explicates this brilliantly in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous:

Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth—our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese.  To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence.  We are human only in contact and conviviality with what is not human.

We become who we are in relationship with both our fellow human beings and the natural world.  To love and pursue peace is to engage, acknowledge, and celebrate those relationships. This is Hillel’s—and Aaron’s—way. 

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Avot 1:11--Words that Hurt

Avot 1:11: Avtalyon says: Sages, be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of toxic water.  The students who follow you there may drink and die, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.

For generations, American children have learned the mantra, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  The point is clear—while physical violence may injure us, verbal attacks need not do us any harm.

This idiom strikes me as nonsense, and decidedly not Jewish.  In our tradition, the power of words, to harm or to heal, is unparalleled.  The Talmud teaches: “Anyone who insults or humiliates another in public—it is as though they were spilling blood.”  Hate speech is murderous.  As one of our most well-known folk parables recognizes, cruel and callous words can never be fully retracted; once spoken, they scatter through the world like wind-driven feathers.  Today, with social media’s capacity to amplify the spread of words by unfathomable magnitudes, we are collectively drowning in the toxic tide of insult and insinuation.

Avtalyon directs his warning toward his peers, the rabbinic sages and scholars of his generation.  They bear the responsibility of leading by example, for as Avtalyon notes, students are strongly drawn to follow their teachers.  In our own age, when we are all effectively armed with a booming high-tech megaphone, we share the leader’s privilege and burden of modeling kind and compassionate speech.  The next generation is watching, listening, and learning from us.