Present versus potential

Present versus potential

We seem to have a well-ingrained habit of dividing people into two categories. For example, we say that there are those for whom the cup is half-full, while others for whom the cup is half-empty.

There are other dichotomies that we utilize. We distinguish between those individuals who are rational, guided by their heads, and those who are emotional, who follow their hearts. There are men and women of reason, and there are men and women of feeling.

Personally, I believe that such dichotomies are simplistic, failing to take the complexity of human beings into account. Most of us fluctuate between optimism and pessimism. We occasionally rely upon our reason, but in other circumstances become quite emotional.

It is fascinating to find such dichotomies in our traditional Jewish sources. Perhaps the most famous of them relates to two schools of thought that pervade Talmudic literature: Hillel and Shammai. These two great sages debate each other on hundreds of subjects, ranging from the question of whether it would have been better that man had never been created to laws regarding the fine points of ritual purity.

Many scholars have assumed that fundamentally, different philosophies of life were at the root of their disagreements. One attempt to identify such an underlying rationale was made by a sage of the last generation, Rabbi Solomon Joseph Zevin, who believed that all of Hillel and Shammai’s differences of opinion could be reduced to one basic difference. Shammai, he argued, held the future potential of a situation to be more critical than the actual current one, while Hillel felt that the actual situation with which a person is confronted takes precedence over considerations of what might happen in the future.

Their contrasting approaches to religious life is exemplified in the well-known story of the aspiring convert to Judaism who approached first Shammai and then Hillel with the request that they teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai angrily rejected him, while Hillel welcomed him, famously declaring that the essence of the Torah could indeed be taught on one foot: “Do not do unto others what is hateful to you.”

Following Zevin’s approach, when Shammai was confronted with the bizarre request of the convert, he suspected, with good cause, that this man would not be a good candidate or a lasting conversion — sooner or later, he would revert to his pagan ways. But Hillel was not troubled by what the potential future might hold in store. Here was a man who wished to convert. That was all that mattered.

With another of their many debates, we finally come to this week’s special Shabbat, the Shabbat of Chanukah.

Hillel ruled that one begins the holiday by lighting just one candle and then increases the number of candles day by day. Shammai ruled in the opposite manner, beginning with eight candles and then gradually decreasing the number of candles night after night.

Applying Zevin’s analysis can gain a fresh understanding of the menorah lighting. For Shammai, the miracle was powerful at that specific time in history when it occurred. But, concerned as he was about the potential future, he was convinced that, with time, the memory of that miracle would fade and its lessons would be forgotten.

Hillel had a different view. We can return, he asserted, to the moment in history when the miracle occurred. At first, on day one, the phenomenon was almost insignificant. But as each day passed and the oil of the Temple’s menorah continued to burn, the wonder grew and grew. The victory of more than 2,000 years ago remains ever present, right up to this very year. Memories need not fade. Such is the nature of the Jewish historical memory: events can be relived.

Hillel’s teaching about the primacy of the moment and our ability to relive it lies at the core of Chanukah. This teaching is encapsulated in the words of the blessing we recite just as we light the menorah: “Blessed are You, Lord our God … who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, and at this time.”

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

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