World of the Sages: Hillel's unrelenting faith

World of the Sages Hill

hillel illustration 88 (photo credit: )
hillel illustration 88
(photo credit: )
The Mishna teaches that prayerful requests should address only the future; beseeching the Almighty for something that has already occurred is considered a prayer in vain and should be avoided (M. Brachot 9:3). Two examples of such prayers in vain are cited: If someone's wife is pregnant and he asks God to ensure that the baby be of a certain gender, this prayer is considered to be in vain for the fetus's sex has already been determined. Similarly, if someone is traveling and hears screaming in the city and he responds by praying, "May it be [Your] will that this [screaming] is not taking place within my house" - this too is a prayer in vain for the crying out has already happened, perhaps in the traveler's home, perhaps elsewhere. What can a traveler then say to God, as he approaches his hometown and hears despairing cries for help? One medieval commentator offered two possible options (Meiri, 13th century, Provence): First, the traveler can rephrase his prayer in terms of the future: 'If the calamity be in my home, please spare my household from danger.' Alternatively, he should have faith in the Almighty that the cries are not coming from his home. This second approach - a somewhat difficult task in the face of real cries - is exemplified by a story recounted in the Talmud (B. Brachot 60a). Hillel the Elder was coming along the road and as he approached his hometown he heard the sound of screaming in the city. With conviction and almost blasé certainty, he declared, "I am confident that this [screaming] is not [coming from] within my home." The Talmud appropriated a biblical verse to Hillel's confidence: Of evil tidings he will have no fear; his heart is firm, confident in God (Psalms 112:7). How indeed could Hillel have been so confident? Surely Hillel's home was susceptible in some way to tragedy? The Baghdadi scholar Rabbi Yosef Haim (1840-1913) explained that our talmudic passage displays the supreme, almost unparalleled faith of Hillel, who was so sure that God would not allow tragedy to befall his household that he was willing to publicly assert, "I am confident that this screaming is not coming from within my home." Rabbi Yosef Haim explained that even people who have strong faith in the Almighty are generally hesitant to declare so openly. Believers may not express themselves in the confident terms voiced by Hillel, lest God decide otherwise and they are left red-faced, embarrassed before all those who heard their unfulfilled declaration. Hillel, however, was of a different calibre; he did not fear the public reaction, declaring his unwavering faith with no hesitation. According to this explanation, the Talmud recounts the ultimate paradigm of trust in the Almighty, setting a standard that is beyond the grasp of most. AN ALTERNATIVE explanation comes from hassidic circles: Rabbi Itamar Wohlgelernter of Kónskowola (d. 1831) explained that Hillel's confidence was born out of his intimate understanding of his family. Hillel had taught his family that no matter what happens, they need not cry out in anguish and despair since everything is Divinely orchestrated; even calamity should be accepted with equanimity and love for the Almighty. Tragedy could befall the household of Hillel, yet he was confident that his family would react to the misfortune without losing faith in God. Rabbi Itamar connected Hillel's confidence in his household to the biblical verse "And you shall rejoice in all the good which God your Lord has given to you and to your household" (Deuteronomy 26:11) - rejoicing in what the Almighty has given is not merely the province of the individual, it is a challenge for the entire household. According to this reading suggested by Rabbi Wohlgelernter, the biblical verse cited in the talmudic passage - "Of evil tidings he will have no fear; his heart is firm, confident in God" (Psalms 112:7) - does not describe the fortitude of Hillel's heart, rather it refers to the collective heart of Hillel's household. Appreciating the Almighty in the face of adversity on a personal level is a laudable achievement to which we may aspire. Inculcating such a feeling in the members of your household is even more exalted. The Talmud thus tells us less about Hillel's unshakeable faith in God and more about Hillel's family and about his success in transmitting his ideals to the members of his household. The passage may therefore also be alluding to the challenge that community leaders and contributors must tackle: While turning our attention towards public needs with the goal of making a contribution to our society, how do we ensure that we do not simultaneously turn away from our own household? Displaying lofty ideals should not come at the expense of neglecting the responsibility of instilling those very ideals in those nearest and dearest to us. The writer is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.