Thank you for joining us for the first lesson of Portraits in Leadership: Timeless Tales for Inspired Living. After setting the stage in this particularly tempestuous chapter of Jewish history, the first sage featured in our course was Hillel. We began with the great personal sacrifice that he made in order to relocate to Israel to study Torah. Under great financial constraints, Hillel would pay half a coin each day for entry into the study hall. One day, however, he lacked the necessary funds. In class, we discussed various possible responses in such a situation – and then we read the Talmud’s account of Hillel climbing up onto the study hall’s roof, hardly noticing the cold and listening to the words of Torah.
Next, we spoke about an incident with the Beteira family in which they forgot a law, and after Hillel demonstrated his knowledge on the topic, he was appointed leader. At first, he harshly criticized them for their laxity in study. However, at a later point, Hillel too forgot a law. This instance of “poetic justice” impacted Hillel on a very personal level. He realized that he must be gentler in his approach, and this lesson guided him thereafter.
The main segment our lecture examined Hillel’s “humble greatness” as well as the quality of humility. There was a story in which a man repeatedly tried to irritate Hillel, asking a series of strange, hypothetical questions at the most inopportune times. After each question was patiently answered, the man admitted that he had thereby lost a bet that he would cause Hillel to lose his temper. We examined several stories and quotations and then, in pairs, formulated arguments for and against applying the quality of humility to the great Hillel. On one hand, the above story seems quite humble. At the same time, a comment such as “my greatness is my humility, and my humility is my greatness” could be construed as boastful and prideful – far from humble. At this point in class, we paused to reconsider the quality of humility. Humble people are aware of their abilities, but realize that they are tools given by G-d to be used responsibly. Therefore, assertiveness is a natural outgrowth of humility, and the above statement doesn’t conflict with being humble at all.
The schools of Hillel and Shammai were quite different, as we later discussed. Nevertheless, Hillel toiled to preserve peaceful relations while, at the same time, igniting a renewed interest in Torah study. Shamai demanded exacting standards of perfection – and Hillel reached out to all kinds of people. He also avoided conflict with the ruling government of Herod.
Thank you again for joining us for this first class, and next week, we will continue with our next portrait, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai.