Monday, 10 September 2012

Lessons from Hillel the elder

I've always been fascinated by where ideas come from. As a reader for most of my life I consider myself fortunate for having the skill of reading and writing. I think my Inukness has provided me with a solid basis for being a reader/thinker because of the way IQ teaching is such that little or no commentary nor rote memorization is provided to encourage thinking/reasoning and reflection for oneself.

As a reader I've tried to cultivate a wide-ranging base as possible. When an idea grabs my attention I have to try and go to the source directly, and barring that I try and read up on the subject as much as possible. When I was in my religious phase I wasn't satisfied with only the Christian reading of the scriptures, I had to find out what the other religions of monotheism - namely, the Jewish and Muslim readings. I have an inclination for mysticism, and have always had ecstatic experiences and moments of epiphany. Because of my strong passions, it does not surprise me that some would say that I'm a bit insane.

As a mystic, I've sought out the experiences of others considered great in all the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths. One of these that I've always admired is called Hillel the elder (c. 110BCE - 10CE). He wasn't just a great Jewish teacher (helping create the ongoing historical discourse on the Mishnah (the compilation of legal opinions and debates) and the Talmud (the oral law of Judaism)) but also a great aphorist who is attributed with such sayings as:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

and

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?

The beauty of the Talmudic commentaries is that it is not just about religous insights and commentaries - inlcuding almost every aspect of a Jewish life - but it also includes subject matter that would be considered 'heresy' by the other two monotheistic religions because no question is prohibited, and the seeking of its resolution is always done in good faith if at times cryptic and obstruse in their conclusions.

My admiration of Hillel the elder is that his aphorisms can often be applied not only to matters of faith but to other aspects of a life, including the political. As someone who's interested in the notion of 'self-improvement' - increasingly so with my mature age - I've tried to reflect upon the second Hillel quote: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?

It is an open question that takes a great deal of my time as a political commentator, and something I've tried to be cognizant of as an advocate for Inuit rights in my policy work when I worked in the field. In my natural state I'm really a timid and fearful person (especially in my youth) and it is this type of question that provides me the strength and chutzpah to challenge the 'ruling class' and the sometimes arbitrary and unkind bureaucracy which loom unjustifiably large in our lives.

It has been said that courage is not the absence of fear but doing something or standing up despite the fear. As with almost everything in my life I've tried to resolve my hopes and fears through informed reflection. I may not have always succeeded but it is the best way, in my estimation, to try and transcend my present circumstances.

Jay

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