When you teach, you learn. I spoke a few words at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church two weeks ago. I’d been asked to invite the congregation to a joint study program with my synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel. I told a story about Rabbi Hillel. Early this week, the lesson came back to me.
Some background: Several years ago, Calvary welcomed Sherith Israel to hold our Yom Kippur morning services at the church as we prepared to undertake seismic-retrofit construction. Our building suffered minor damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (it survived the 1906 quake, too), and the City demanded that we bring it up to the new code. Calvary proved a wonderful host. Last spring we completed phase one of our retrofit construction. In September, we held Yom Kippur morning services in our sanctuary. But a relationship had begun. Both institutions wanted to expand it.
As a result, Sherith Israel and Calvary will conduct a joint adult-education course, Let Us Reason Together: Jews and Christians in Dialogue. My invitation to register included Jesus’ teaching, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Then I went to Hillel, who antecedes Jesus, for the big finish.
The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) relates a gentile telling Hillel that he will convert to Judaism if the Sage can teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel offers a three-part reply. “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” He then adds, “All the rest is commentary.” Many Jews, unfortunately, forget the third part: “Now go and study.”
The congregants at Calvary were appreciative. I hope to see many of them this Sunday at a brief 10:00 a.m. introduction before our eight-week course begins on Tuesday evening. But my mention of Hillel struck me. I read the Torah portion each week and with it commentary. It takes a grasp of two millennia of commentary to begin to get a grip on so many puzzling concepts. As I told the folks at Calvary, we Jews don’t just read our texts. We cross-examine them.
As it happens, I found in Etz Hayim, the Conservative movement’s Torah Commentary, an explanation I had previously overlooked. On Shabbat evenings and mornings, we often conclude the Amidah, the Silent Prayer, by singing, “Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.” “May the one who makes peace in the heavens bring peace to us (here on earth).” I always wondered what strife there could be in the heavens. I discovered that the Midrash links this prayer to Genesis 1:8 and the Creation story. The word for heaven is shamayim. The Midrash considers shamayim to be composed of two words—aish (fire) and mayim (water). Only God can make the two coexist.
It’s a small thing, really. And yet this Rabbinic thought offers a beautiful explanation to a puzzle often overlooked. Moreover, it suggests that we emulate God and make peace where peace is difficult to achieve yet within our capabilities.
There’s a whole lot of aish and mayim butting heads from Washington to Libya, Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and drought-stricken Somalia. May we use our capacity to learn to begin to do and make peace—even a little—where there is none.
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