The early rabbis lived through some interesting times. Beginning with the first generation, the students of Hillel and Shammai around 2,000 years ago, they witnessed the beginnings of the Jewish revolt against Roman rule. By the end of the second generation they may have backed the ill-fated Jewish War against the most powerful empire the world has ever known, the Romans at the peak of their power. They experienced internal strife, exile, death, and survival following the climax of these events in the year 70. Within 65 years, the generation of Rabbi Akiva backed another losing revolt against Rome, the Bar Kochba rebellion. It was downhill for the Jews in Israel for the next 1400 years.
Tough times make for tough people. These rabbis were tough – they were able to handle all the blows that the world dealt them. Their numerous recorded discussions reflect this perseverance. What did these rabbis discuss all this time? Did they talk politics? Did they ruminate over rival religions? Were they fomenting revolutions and plotting strategies? From the recorded testimony it appears out that most of their learned discussions were spent talking about the law - the dry, complex, antiquated, law. They did hit on politics and other religions every once in a while, but it rarely distracted them from getting down to the bottom of the law. However, other things did concern them. Tremendously. Overwhelmingly. They cared deeply about what Jews were supposed to be doing, and where Judaism was going in light of the huge turmoil that was erupting all around them.
We have an example of a discussion between the members of the schools of Hillel and Shammai on such an issue: “For two and a half years the schools of Shammai and Hillel argued. These said that it is better (easier) for man to not be created than to be created; while these said it is better (easier) for man to be created than to not be created. They voted and concluded that it is better (easier) for man to not be created than to be created. Now that he is created, he should search his actions; or, as some say it, he should grope his actions.”
Wow, talk about persistence. How did they talk about anything for 2½ years, let alone whether we should be here or not? Assuming they could sustain such long-term interest, isn’t it all a rather moot point, whether we should or shouldn’t have been created, being as they themselves concluded, ‘Now that he is created’? Also, who are these guys to question the divine wisdom of God? Didn’t God create the world and human beings along with it? Doesn’t the Torah say that God saw that everything He created was good? So what’s the debate? And what’s with the vote? Can a bunch of rabbis really vote on such a matter? Finally, what do these consolation pieces of advice mean? How do they help matters, being as we’ve been put in such a tough situation?
This one’s a whopper, by anybody’s standards. Apparently, this was a rather important and relevant issue back then. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so terrible if Jews took up the topic again. Is it really all that great of a thing that we were created? Not only do we take it for granted that it was indeed a good thing, we don’t even think about it enough to recognize that it was a good thing. It just is. There’s nothing anyone can do about it anyway, so we might as well just get on with it.
What a bizarre situation. Imagine waking up in some other universe or some imaginary universe, not knowing how you got there or what you are doing there. You sure better start wondering what you are doing there and what whoever it was that put you there wants out of you. This is precisely our situation in life. But we find ourselves ‘here’ and just leave it at that, with no questioning about how we got here and what we’re supposed to be doing here.
This was the starting framework for the discussions between the schools of Hillel and Shammai concerning the creation of man. They did have certain givens, like the obvious statement in the Torah that God created everything, including man, and declared that it was all very good. Of this, there was no disputing. So what were they arguing over? The key phrase is the two Hebrew words ‘noach lo’, traditionally translated as ‘better’. But this translation produces problems, the first of which is that clear statement in the Torah. A solution to this problem is that ‘noach lo’ does not mean ‘better’. It means ‘easier’ (both are legitimate translations). The question they were discussing was whether it is easier, or more pleasant, for man to be created or not.
Contrary to popular belief, being created is not a walk in the park. It is a great responsibility. It means being gifted with powers that are downright god-like. We have free will that enables us to control much of our own destiny. We have minds that can grasp everything from the wonders of creation, to the feelings of another person, to the beauty of a flower. We have a moral conscience that steers us through right and wrong, through good and evil. We have the ability to create or destroy the world.
With tools like those to work with, we have been put in charge of a monumental task. We’ve got to do something in life, and do it right. Perhaps it really would be more pleasant for us if we weren’t created. We wouldn’t have this enormous burden to bear, this Atlas-like weight on our shoulders, crunching us down until we break. The odds of success are pretty small. This is why one of the two schools argued that it would indeed be more pleasant to not be created - no heavy weight to bear, no great responsibility, no guilt. The other side saw things very differently. To them, not being created, not having had the chance to accomplish, to fail a dozen times just to reach that one time of success, was a fate worse than death. The greatest pain is no pain at all. To forever bask in the eternal nothingness of non-existence is absolute hell to one who understands what it truly means to be a human being.
To be or not to be, that is the question, the great debate. It took them over two years of back and forth to be ready for a vote. The vote, of course, could not really decide the issue. That is for each and every one of us to decide. Will we take the path of least resistance, the path that looks easy but gets nowhere; or the uphill path of spiritual growth and accomplishment, that ultimately gets us somewhere? The schools of Hillel and Shammai voted, perhaps reluctantly, that, for most of us, it would probably be easier if we were never put in this lions’ den of life where moral decisions are all too often a role of the dice. But that wasn’t all they said.
They added that little proviso at the end. ‘Now that he is created, he should search his actions, or, as some say, he should grope his actions.’ Like it or not, we are created. Maybe the deck is stacked against us in many ways, but that doesn’t change the obvious fact that we must play our hand. What should we do to make the challenge a little ‘easier’? Not that we should be looking for some easy way out of the responsibilities of life, but we certainly should be looking for ways to increase our chances of success. So what great advice do the rabbis give us to ease our burden?
"Search his actions" – think about what you have done. Review it, every year, every month, every week, every day. Doing a ‘heshbon hanefesh’ - an accounting of the person - is the absolutely essential step in accomplishing something of spiritual value in life. This does not mean getting down on yourself for every little time you’ve messed up. On the contrary, it means using those slip-ups as an opportunity for an upgrade of spiritual standards. Try it, even for one single day. It works wonders.
The second version of their advice is a little more difficult to understand. How does one ‘grope his actions’? The classic explanation of this phrase is that one should not only review the past but ‘grope’ into the future. Groping is done when one doesn’t real have a clear vision of what’s coming but must proceed nevertheless. This is our situation in life regarding the future. The future is always one step beyond our grasp; it always contains some element of the unknown, a factor that we frequently refer to as fate. One can pad the odds of success as much as possible, but never eliminate those wild cards in life. Groping means to feel out the future as much as possible and not simply rush into it blindly. The future is the world that we create for ourselves as we go through life. It is the autobiography that we ourselves write every day of our lives. It behooves us to write out an ending that drips with meaning and purpose, with accomplishment and growth, and not leave our future in the hands of fate.
Have you ever taken the time to wonder what the heck you’re doing here? It’s a little uncomfortable, and more than a little unsettling, but it’s pretty worthwhile nevertheless. Anybody who actually tries this little exercise will realize that it’s much easier not thinking about it than thinking about it. It’s also much easier not worrying about accomplishing anything in particular than it is to worry about such concerns. But that’s all the more reason to do it. This is the ‘road less traveled’ – the path that most of us would rather not have to tread on, but the one that makes the whole journey worth the time it takes. It really boils down to thinking about life and what you are doing with it.
The way to get started on this daunting task is by doing those periodic reviews, the heshbon hanefesh. To really be effective, they have to be taken on a fairly regular basis, for instance, daily. It’ll be tough at first, and will require setting aside precious time for something that’s not very trendy, but the rewards are priceless. While reviewing the past, try planning the spiritual future. We all plan for the future when it comes to practical material things, like dealing with money and health and social matters. But spiritual matters usually slip under the radar and we generally just let them ‘happen’. But our spiritual future is entirely in our own hands and there is no reason for it to be anywhere else.
You can guide your spiritual future by using your singular and unique power as a human being – your will. With this remarkable power, you and you alone, can make yourself into a different being than you were previously. It’s nothing short of creating a new you. Every one of us can do this, no matter how difficult it may seem. Every one of us must do this, for it is our very purpose. It is almost as if the conclusion of the fateful vote so long ago read, ‘Yes, it would have been easier for people not to have been created, with the odds of spiritual success so stacked against them, but now that they have been created, let them make something better of themselves. Let them increase their odds. Let each and every one of them create a new person who is indeed worthy of being created.
Food for Thought
Why don’t we ever talk about important stuff like this?
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