Ethics – Now & Then 21 – Avot 2:5

Avot 2:5 Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community;
               do not believe in yourself until the day you die;
               do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place;
               do not make a statement that cannot be easily understood
               on the ground that it will be understood eventually;
               and do not say, “When I am free I will study,” for perhaps you
               will not become free.

Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community;

In accord with the Hebrew Scriptures, the Sages of Israel define the community, ha’tzibur, as the group who was chosen by God to receive His Torah (teachings) in order to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex.19:6). The reality presented is that each person is a destined part of the tzibur of His people, and they cannot live life in synchronicity with His will in isolation from this community. The Talmud describes it thus: “At a time when the people Israel are immersed in distress and one of them goes off on his own way [refusing to share their suffering], the angels… say, ‘Since this man has separated himself from the community [in its distress], let him not see the consolation and cheer of the community’” (Ta’anith 11a). To stand with Israel in her times of trouble means to rejoice with her in her times of joy and redemption.

We can apply this concept of community on a purely personal level. When one is helpless, as a babe, or in sickness or old age, one depends on the community of family and the social group around one. In the Western culture, and civilization as a whole, it would be impossible to live for long as a hermit, in total self-reliance. This was the first lesson God, our Creator, taught Adam – self-sufficiency was not enough and was not the purpose of Creation. The goal was relationship; a sharing of life and a pooling of resources. Not independence but rather interdependence. The basis of the first murder, and the antithesis of the loving relationship God intends, is reflected in Cain’s terse response to the whereabouts of his brother Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9).

To separate yourself from the community, whether considering community socially or globally, in the wider sense, or even in a community of two, does not necessarily mean physically or geographically. The deeper and more subtle implication is that of attitude. To consider oneself “better than” and “knowing more than” whoever the community or other may be, and to harbor attitudes of arrogance and condescension toward the “whomever,” undoubtedly will cause a chasm of separation. A chasm that can only be bridged in humility and respect, and with a willingness to hear and to learn from the other.

…do not believe in yourself until the day you die;

Every individual is a product of his or her past experiences; all of one’s ‘yesterdays.’ One of the greatest gifts of God to His children, along with free will, is the ability to change – to learn and to grow in character. He pursues us constantly to this end, that we might make the right choices, today, in accord with His perfect plans and purposes for our lives, and then receive the support and power of His Spirit of holiness to enable us to go forward into tomorrow.

Proverbs 27:1 cautions us, “Do not boast of tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” No one can know with 100 per cent certainty what tomorrow, or even each day, will bring. Our confidence and future security cannot be placed in ourselves or others; and certainly not in material things. Our perfect trust can only be in the Lord, who said,
“Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. ..Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow…” (Matt. 6:25-34).

When our lives are in the hands of the only One Who knows the future, and Who has promised to be there for us, then we can step forward into tomorrow in peace and confidence.

…do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place;

As a young girl, I remember the deep pain, helplessness and embarrassment I felt when a fellow classmate openly and falsely accused me before the rest of the class of stealing something from her. To my great relief, the teacher was able to step in and resolve the situation. However, the scar of the injustice remained. My friend had made a hasty judgment without evidence, due to a misperception, and the experience left me with a desire never to inflict the pain of unfair judgment on another. It is a challenge in a society where that tendency is deeply ingrained.

Hillel’s words of wisdom do well in urging us to avoid judging our fellow man until we can be “in his place.” This sets a healthy ‘brake’ on any inclination to judge a person or their actions. Most often, when we form an opinion of someone or their behavior, we are seeing the person or the action outside of the full context. We do not know the history or all the surrounding circumstances that influenced the person, nor the factors that contributed to the action.

When we are aware of some of the external facts in a particular situation, are we able to empathize with the person and place ourselves in their position? Hillel stresses that unless one makes the effort to understand and appreciate all the person is experiencing, to “be in his place” – or to “stand in his shoes” – and feel what he is feeling even for a moment, then one is judging in a vacuum and is in no position to pass judgment at all.

…do not make a statement that cannot be easily understood on the ground that it will be understood eventually;

There are many ways one can apply this maxim. A person can deliberately express his words in a way that is misleading to the hearer and would cause confusion, even when the speaker knows that the meaning could be made clear later. This, of course, is reprehensible and can be considered in the light of the commandment to not bear “false witness.”

Hillel’s first frame of reference would have been that of teacher and student. The warning, echoing Avot 1:11, is that the teacher be scrupulously careful in his teaching and to avoid any vagueness that could be misunderstood and misinterpreted by his students.

…and do not say, “When I am free I will study,” for perhaps you will not become free.

As well as underscoring the need to study [the Scriptures] Hillel is emphasizing the deep human inclination to procrastinate. Psychologist and Rabbi, Abraham Twerski, states, “Essentially, the procrastinator does not want to do something; not today, not tomorrow, not ever.” [1]

In habitually putting off a difficult task, or in not doing something one does not naturally enjoy, one is simply fooling oneself. Twerski uses the example of avoiding the preparation of one’s tax returns and comments, “If the procrastinator [honestly] would say to himself, “I don’t want to do it, therefore I am not going to do it!”…there is a likelihood that the realization that he must do it will lead him to action.” [2] Facing the reality of the need provides motivation and a stimulus for disciplined action.

May we be faithful stewards and disciplined in all we need to do, things large or small, and may we hear the voice of our Master saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a few things. …Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Lk.19:12-27).

1. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Visions of the Fathers, 97
2. Ibid, 97

Leave a Reply