This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
Ethics from Sinai, Irving Bunim's translation on the pirkei avot renders the following quote thus:
Hillel has said, "Don't separate from the community; do not trust yourself till the day you die; do not judge your fellow man until you find yourself in his situation; do not say something that cannot presently be understood because you think that eventually it will be understood. Also, do not say, 'When I am at my leisure, I'll study Torah.' Perhaps you will never be at your leisure."
Accessing the difference between right and wrong on a daily basis can be a tricky business. For instance, is it okay to lie to someone who asks if she looks nice in a dress when she and her friends have already left for their nighttime destination? By the way, the dress looks terrible on her. In this example's case our sages answer, "For the sake of peace, one is permitted to lie." Okay, but now one needs to clarify what the term 'peace' means and that takes time and effort. We need to ask, "How can we gain clarity in the arena of life?" Hillel tells us that Torah must be at the foundation of one's actions for it is the guideline to working on one's relationships with himself, his fellow man and G-d. Therefore, it is imperative to learn Torah and learn it now. Who knows how much time you will have later?
All that notwithstanding, Hillel emphasizes one's relationship with the community as the primary goal. After all, without it, Jewish growth is stunted. One of the main causes behind the phrase, "Don't separate from the community" is the Oral Torah. The Oral law, unlike the Written Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses, could not be passed down in writing since our system of learning is that of teacher handing down the tradition to his student(s). Moreover, other numerous commandments keep the Jew tied to his neighborhood, for instance, praying with a minyan (quorum) of ten men. Thus, hermit hood where Jews are concerned is a faulty enterprise.
Hillel expounds on this idea by adding the following quote, "Do not judge your fellow man until you find yourself in his situation." What is the connection? In order to function well within one's community one must work on judging his fellow man favorably. Don't squabble with the neighbors. "If you had walked in his shoes" you might not have fared much better... Now, in the event that a person should decide he is self reliant and cuts himself off from his fellow man as a result, he is turning his back on opportunities for self growth.
Yet, what if society were corrupt? Must one be forced to tell off those people who don't pay their taxes on time, or who inconsiderately park their cars in the handicap spots when they have no disabled vehicle sign on their front window? Henry David Thoreau, a man who had very little tolerance for other peoples' stupidities left his Massachusetts hometown to live alone in the woods because he didn't agree with how others were choosing to conduct their lives. Instead of yelling himself hoarse he chose to leave. Perhaps it was this sort of behavior that Hillel was warning against, "Do not judge your fellow man until you find yourself in his situation."
Thoreau's irritation stemmed from, namely, the fact that he had lost his teaching post because he refused to strike a student, something that was socially acceptable in the 1800's. Yet two years and two months after his stint by Walden pond, Thoreau returned to society. That was when I saw that Hillel's quote, "Do not say something that cannot presently be understood because you think that eventually it will be understood," might be rendered another way. "Do not say something that cannot be heeded for eventually it will be heeded." Therefore, it was a good thing Thoreau spent much of his adult life in consistently wagging a forefinger at society for crimes like allowing teachers to thrash children in school. He even moved on to pushing his abolitionist views on a culture that was largely indifferent to slave trading in the Southern states. At the time, Thoreau was a fish swimming against the current, but in the end, the transcendentalist's personal indignation cracked through the armor of the American proletariat. He felt the indignation of a community splintered by different views and eventually, his ideals rubbed off on those who later became his followers.
As amazing as Transcendentalism was, it lasted no longer than several generations. Many of the people to join its ranks, among them, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman etc.died single and childless. Like Thoreau, they extolled self reliance; therefore, they ended up without continuity. Is there a direct correlation between transcendentalism and bachelorhood, you ask? Does one need to have a direct line in order to keep a movement going? After all, where is the balance between community and self reliance? Actually, I discovered that Thoreau, for all his personal self reliance and disinterest in looking after anyone but himself, was one of the holders of inspiration in my heart. Even if his personal guidelines were skewed, he was amazing in that he pushed people to follow their own truths, regardless of popular opinion. I think, that when it comes to doing good things for the betterment of mankind, having Thoreau's stubborn streak helps a lot.