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Standing on One Foot

Dedicated to all of those holy souls who feel that they have descended into the lowest of places but are fearful of rising up and accepting upon themselves the yoke of Heaven due to the daunting nature of leading a committed life //

The Gemara in Shabbos (31a) tells the story of a gentile who came to the great sage Shammai and said, “I want you to convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s stick in his hand. He went to Hillel, who converted him and said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.”

As we consider this story, several obvious questions arise:

  1. What is the inner meaning of the gentile’s condition that he be taught Torah on one foot?
  2. While we know that we don’t encourage people to convert, we don’t physically push people away with sticks either. Why then does Shammai push the would-be convert away with a measuring stick?
  3. The Gemara mentions the builder’s cubit in Shammai’s hands. The commentaries (see Chasam Sofer and Ben Yehoyada) explain that Shammai was a builder by trade which would explain why he was holding a measuring stick. Still we are bothered, of what significance is it that this gentile approached Shammai specifically while he had a measuring stick in his hand?
  4. The Gemara tells us that the same gentile went afterward to Hillel. While ostensibly he repeated his condition to Hillel the Gemara makes no mention of the question being repeated. Is it possible that the gentile no longer had the “one-foot” stipulation?
  5. Seemingly out of nowhere, Hillel teaches the newly minted Ger his “golden rule.”That which is hateful to you do not do to another.” Why does Hillel choose to teach him this lesson now? One could argue that the continuation of the sentence answers our question. “That is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.” Hillel was teaching the Ger the most basic general principle of the entire Torah from which everything else is derived. But if that were the case, shouldn’t Hillel have taught him this principle before he converted him? Why teach it to him after the conversion has already been completed?
  6. Hillel did not say V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha, love your fellow as you love yourself; he said do not do unto others as you would not want to be done to yourself. If Hillel simply meant that we should love each other he would have quoted the pasuk of V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha (Vayikra 19:18) as Rav Akiva (many years later) did when he stated that it was the general principle of the entire Torah. And if Hillel meant to love your fellow as you do yourself, then what was so novel about Rav Akiva saying it years later? Clearly then these are two different ideas. 
  7. Furthermore, Hillel states his principle in the negative; do not do unto others etc… Why not frame it in the positive? Do unto others as you would want to be done to yourself. 
  8. After teaching this Ger the idea that he should not do unto others what he would not want to be done to himself, he instructs the Ger to study. Now that he is a full-fledged Jew, he has a Mitzvah of Talmud Torah like everyone else. What, then, is Hillel adding by instructing him to go study? 

To explain this Gemara, we must first give a brief introduction to the inner meaning of the nature of a Ger. The Arizal teaches us that everything in this world contains sparks of Kedusha. These Divine sparks are what give rise to every facet of existence. Even the greatest evil exists only because of these Nitzotzos found within it. In fact, the only reason that evil exists is because the sparks are so concealed that their expression is to be the opposite of what they actually are. The Maggid of Mezritch explains that these sparks, those found in the lowest and coarsest of places, are the highest expressions of Divinity. The higher the sparks, the lower they fall. In order to bring the world to its ultimate rectification, all of these sparks must be aggregated. Only when the highest sparks, those that reveal the truth of Hashem, are redeemed is the mission for creation fulfilled. The Gemara in Pesachim (87b) teaches in the name of Rav Elazar that Hashem exiled Klal Yisrael among the world’s nations only so that converts might join them. The soul of a convert is considered the highest level of sparks in existence and thus they have fallen into the body of a gentile. The Ger who converts has redeemed the Nitzotzos by joining Klal Yisrael.

To become a Ger, one must accept on themselves the yoke of the Torah’s commandments and commit to keeping them. To accept some, or even most, of the precepts of the Torah is not enough. Only a complete commitment is sufficient to become a Ger. Additionally, this must be done for the sake of Hashem and not for any ulterior motive. With this in mind, we can begin to understand the gentile’s request of Shammai. We are sure footed, rooted and steady when we stand on two feet. When we stand on one foot, we lack balance. We are shaky. It is a state when one feels like they are about to fall. 

The implied question of the potential convert is, how can I be expected to commit to a Judaism that is so demanding of me when I feel like even a slight breeze may blow me over? He asked Shammai to teach him a Torah that would take him off the roller coaster of Aliyos and Yeridos of life. A Torah that will stabilize the inner chaos we regularly experience. I suspect many of us can relate to the sentiments of this convert. Kabbalas Ol Malchus Shomayim can be a daunting prospect. Who among us does not falter in our observance of Hashem’s commandments? We are a generation that thirsts for a Torah for those standing on one foot. 

In light of this explanation, Shammai’s response is even stranger. Do we push away those who yearn to come closer to Hashem but fear their own human frailties? Of course not. And it goes without saying that Shammai would never have physically hit someone for asking a question. What does the Gemara mean when it says that Shammai pushed this gentile away with this measuring stick in his hand?

In Kabbalah, there is an idea that while we pasken like Beis Hillel in Olam Hazeh, we will pasken like Beis Shammai in Olam Haba (Mikdash Melech to Zohar, Bereishis 17b, Likkutei Torah, Korach 54c, Avnei Eliyahu in the name of the Vilna Gaon commentary on Birchas Yotzer HaMeoros, Malbim Torah Ohr, Chukas 293). The Malbim explains that Beis Shammai was wholly removed from the physical world. His psak halacha could not be applied to the physical world we inhabit. In contrast, Beis Hillel engaged the physical world; therefore, their psak halacha was applicable to Olam Hazeh. 

The Gemara in Eruvin (13b) states: For two-and-a-half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel debated. Beis Shammai said, “It is better for man not to have been created than to have been created”; and these (Beis Hillel) said, “It is better for man to have been created than not to have been created.” Beis Shammai, who lives beyond the boundaries of our world, seeks to separate the soul from the body. Accordingly, it is better for man not to have been created in such a gross physical existence. Quoting the Arizal, the Malbim explains that it is due to the elevated nature of the Torah of Beis Shammai that we don’t pasken like them in this world. The Torah descended from the highest spiritual worlds into our physical world. Beis Shammai, who removed themselves from this world, learned the Torah of the highest spiritual worlds (referred to as Toras Ha’atzilus). In those elevated states of consciousness, the halacha is different than it is when it engages our physical existence. In Olam Haba, when our existence is aligned with the higher spiritual planes, the halacha will accord with Beis Shammai. 

In light of this explanation, it is curious that Shammai was a builder. That is the least likely of professions one would choose if they seek to lead an entirely spiritual life. Why would one seek to build an existence that they want to leave? If man shouldn’t have been created, why contribute to the grossness of this physical world? We must be speaking of a completely different type of building altogether. Chazal tell us that Hashem created this world because He seeks to have a dwelling place in the world down below. Shammai understood that the best way to build Olam Hazeh (the world as it currently is) into Olam Haba (the world as it will one day be) is to live in our world as if one is already living in Olam Haba. The way we see the world, and the way we live in this world, creates the reality that we inhabit. To Shammai, we must see past the physical world and see the world through the lens of the supernal spiritual Torah.  

With this in mind, we can understand the response of Beis Shammai to the would-be convert. Hitting him with the measuring stick proverbially means paying no attention to that which can be physically measured. The urges and desires that move your physical existence are meant to be transcended. Live now as you will one day in Olam Haba. If you feel off-kilter, shaky in your Avodas Hashem,  it is because you choose to dwell in this grotesque world. While this is true for every person, it is especially true for the Ger whose soul descends from the highest levels of Kedusha in the supernal worlds. Shammai encourages him to shake off his earthly existence and live on the dimension of his elevated soul. But this type of response is not palatable in Olam Hazeh. It pushes people away. The Psak of Shammai is for Olam Haba. Our would-be convert moved on to Hillel.  

Hillel takes the opposite approach of Shammai. Hashem created a physical world that is meant to be engaged, not abandoned. Hillel maintains that it is better for man to have been created than not created. By living in this world we can reveal Hashem in this world. Seen through the prism of Hillel, our feelings of inadequacy when it comes to our Avodas Hashem are not obstacles but opportunities. We can choose to stay faithful to Hashem when we are not feeling particularly passionate about Yiddishkeit. We can choose to do Teshuva if we have given in to our baser urges. In this way, we bring Hashem into the lower aspects of our lives and consequently bring Hashem lower into this world, thus fulfilling the mission for which we were created.

In other words, in the presence of Hillel, the gentile’s “Regel Achas” feelings were no longer a question. Whereas in the presence of Shammai he asked to be taught the Torah on one foot, in the presence of Hillel there was no question to be asked. He could safely say that he could fully accept upon himself the complete and total yoke of Heaven, knowing that his human frailties are part of the process. The fact that this holy soul descended into the body of a gentile is not only not an embarrassment but a tremendous opportunity to reveal Hashem in this world. Hillel converted the man, but the lesson was not yet over. “What you don’t want to be done to you, don’t do to others. This is all of Torah.”

The famed Breslov Mashpia, Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter shlit”a explains that when we confront challenges and rise above them or when we fail and do Teshuva, we are able to extract those who have fallen into low places. The very reason for our failings was to lift those who have fallen into those places. Hillel was conveying an important lesson to the newly minted Ger. You are an exceptionally holy soul, descended from the highest Nitzotzos of Kedusha to ever grace this plane of existence. It was only due to the sin of Adam HaRishon that your Neshoma ended up in the body of a gentile. And from where did you get the capacity to elevate yourself and join Klal Yisrael? It is due to the fact that someone else fell to your level and did Teshuva that you were able to have the strength to rise up. Hillel’s message was not to love your fellow as you love yourself (as Rav Akiva would state years later) but don’t do unto others what you don’t want to be done to yourself. Someone fell and raised themselves for your sake; if you fall, you must raise yourself to uplift others.Hillel was not instructing the Ger to fall to uplift others. Had that been the message Hillel would have framed his statement in the positive, do unto others as you want done to yourself. We do not seek out challenges and don’t do aveiros to do Teshuva. If however we do fall because life is “regel achas” oriented then we should rise up and elevate others just as someone did for us. This is all of Torah. Rise and fall and raise others up along with us. The rest is interpretation.

Finally, Hillel instructs the Ger to go and learn. Hillel is not teaching him to fulfill the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah. That commandment is well established and does not need to be repeated. Rather, Hillel is telling him that the vicissitudes of life are educational in nature. Falling is not failing, it is learning. Those who live life on one foot are constantly in a state of discovery and wonder. To be a growth-oriented person is a vulnerable pursuit. It is far more comfortable to disengage and give up than it is to fail. Seeing our yeridos through the lens of learning gives us permission to embrace our humanity and have the courage to dare to work on ourselves. The holy convert who ascends from his coarse and lowly state, who dares to live up to the nature of his elevated soul despite the feeling of living life on one foot, is instructed by Hillel to see his life as a learning experience. To paraphrase a famous quote, we are not failing; we are learning with style.   

I suspect this Torah is deeply relevant for many in our generation, both young and old. Who among us has not felt inadequate in our relationship with Hashem? Who has not felt the yearning of our elevated soul to ascend from the coarse and lowly existence that we inhabit? Who among us has not experienced a deep sense of shame, a feeling of being unworthy of love and connection, because we have given in to our baser urges? 

We pasken like Beis Hillel in Olam Hazeh. Our physical existence is meant to be engaged, not abandoned. Our frailties are opportunities to reveal Hashem in this world. Standing on one foot is part and parcel of what it means to be human. When we fall, and we will all fall at some point, we have the opportunity to bring others up along with us. When we rise it is because others fell and brought us up along with them. We rise and fall together as a community. Especially for those who feel a deep sense of loneliness, unable to speak openly about their struggles, it is comforting to know that we are not alone. In reality, we never were alone. Finally, we are not meant to be perfect. We are spiritual beings on a human journey. Imperfection is part of the process and completion, not perfection, is the goal. We ought to be patient with ourselves as we pursue our doctoral degrees in this roller coaster ride we call life. With Hashem’s help we will all find our way eventually. In the meantime, let’s go and learn. Daring to ascend. Bravely facing our inadequacies. Courageously rising up after the fall.      

Rav Mordechai Burg

Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com

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