Meteorological history was made this week in New York City. The National Weather Service said it was the latest first measurable snowfall for the season since record keeping began in 1869. While it was something of a downer of a snowfall at .4 inches, it still counts! Although we’re just north of New York City and have gotten a little more snow this winter, this record reminded me of one of my favorite talmudic narratives.
There once was a man named Hillel the Elder. Everyday he would work for a small sum of money – half of his wage would pay the guard at the Beit Midrash and half would go to feed himself and his family. Once he didn’t find work to earn his daily wage and the guard at the Beit Midrash wouldn’t let him in. So he climbed and hung and sat on the opening of the chimney in order to hear “Divrei Elokim Hayim-the words of the Living God” from Shmaya and Avtalyon. Snow came down that night on him. When first light came up, Shmaya said to Avtalyon: Brother, everyday the house is lit up, and today it is dark, perhaps today it’s cloudy? They looked up and saw a figure of a man on the chimney. They went up and found three amot of snow on him. They cleared it off and washed him and anointed him and put him in front of the fire. They said, “This one is worthy of breaking Shabbat to save.”
Shemaya and Avtalyon are no ordinary scholars. They were Jews by choice who had once understood what it felt like to be on the outside looking in and were now in charge of the Sanhedrin, the ancient Rabbinic court. There, they held immense power and sway over all of the Jewish community. So here they were, so immersed in their studies that they almost didn’t take notice of any of their immediate surroundings until suddenly, “hey, our light is gone.”
The connection between Torah and light in our tradition is vast and explicit in our tradition. Torah orah, we say. Torah is light. Every day they were in here doing the holiest of holy acts, toiling over pages and pages of texts but today, there was something greater than Torah at hand, the welfare of one of their own who was on the outside looking in. That caused the light to be taken away. Their Torah was sending them a message. I am only as holy if you’re really living me, bringing those on the fringes closer to my light.
It was not just any person on the fringe. This was Hillel the elder. He who had been thwarted from learning by the guard who denied him access, all because he didn’t, for one day, have the requisite stuff. Yet he persisted. The point is that Hillel came to imbibe spirituality. Nothing would stop him from participating in this lofty and enchanting experience.
Indeed, so engrossed was he, that he remained undeterred by the blizzard of epic proportions. He had a dream that he was going to come to this promised place of lofty spirituality. And achieve that he did, as this is the Hillel who becomes half of the great pair of Hillel and Shammai.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. You will see many organizations implementing new measures and programming to be more inclusive which is wonderful. Personally though we all should be asking ourselves, how many Hillels are out there waiting for us to open the gates for them?
We have an obligation to make our tradition as accessible as possible. For the most part, many of us are operating from the power structure of Shemaya and Avtalyon, but perhaps we’ve been on the margins before and now we’ve made it to the center. We need to remember; we have immense privilege that comes with a price. It will all be for naught if we don’t use it to look out for all of our fellows of our world. Your personal redemption is not redemptive until you allow others to find their own redemption, especially those who have gone to great lengths to climb on the proverbial window sill trying to get in.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend!
So, we people are living Torah and when we balance our egos with our life purpose, our light shines forth to add to the supernal light of Torah, or so I understand from the diary of Rav Kook.
Shabbat Shalom u'mevorach!