At the Foot of Greatness
The Talmud recounts the story of a man who came to the Jewish sage Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. The Talmud does not reveal whether Hillel indeed delivered his directive while balancing on a single sandal, but his pithy response indicates he had already devoted a great deal of thought to the issue and was in profound agreement with religious thinkers from earlier eras regarding a concept so succinct and universal it came to be known as the Golden Rule: “Do not do to others what is despicable to you. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
I note that Hillel did not say go and do it. Rather, he implored the would-be convert to go and learn it. The difference is linguistically significant. The word “learn” implies that there is a process to fully mastering the art of being kind to others. Given the tumultuous times in which Hillel lived, times of rebellion and unfathomable barbarism and inhumanity, he must have observed untold instances of people not treating others as they themselves would want to be treated. He understood that telling someone to go out into the world and just do it would have been asking too much. Human beings are, after all, only human and tend to get it wrong a lot before they finally get it right. But Hillel also understood that the times in which he lived, because they were so terrible, offered frequent opportunities for committing powerful acts of kindness, courage and compassion that would make the world at once more beautiful, a hopeful optimism that we are at least wholly capable of doing good even if we do not always act on it.
I am a writer by trade, and the older I get and the more acts of horror and inhumanity I witness and hear about, the harder it is for me to maintain hope and optimism, and that, to me, is extraordinarily terrifying. So I continue to write because it is a way for me to testify to goodness in the world, and by seeking it out and finding it, or creating it myself in a place where previously it didn’t exist, and then writing about it, I can affirm that goodness, too, is part of the universe, and I can play an active role in ensuring it will continue to be valued.
I believe we are capable of meeting the challenge to shine and be brilliant, to achieve remarkable things for one another, to lovingly care for and lift each other up, to act kindly toward one another. It should be as easy as standing on one foot. I hope we can do it. I believe we can. I know we should. We have all seen what happens when we don’t.
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