The Talmud presents three stories about Hillel the Elder (Hillel Hazaken) and his counterpart, Shammai, and their interactions with converts. In each of the stories, Hillel is generous and welcoming, where Shammai shoos them away.

In the first of these stories, the would-be convert comes to Shammai and asks him “How many Torahs do you have?” Shammai tells him there are two: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The convert tells Shammai he will convert to Judaism if he only needs to accept the Written Torah. Shammai “became furious with him and ejected him with a rebuke.” He then went to Hillel, who accepted him under the same conditions. Hillel began to teach him the Hebrew alphabet–aleph, bet, gimel, dalet, etc. The next day Hillel reversed the order, teaching the convert that dalet was first, gimel second, etc. The convert said to Hillel, “But yesterday you taught me the opposite!” Hillel responded: “Evidently you put your trust in me to teach you the alphabet. So trust me about the Oral Law as well.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a)

We studied this story in our weekly staff Torah learning this morning. What stuck us as we read it was that Hillel is willing to establish a relationship, to build trust–faith–with the convert, and then to up the ante once trust is established. He is presented here as the consummate educator, the teacher who meets his student where the student is, and on the basis of a trusting relationship brings the student to greater knowledge and commitment.

Another story we studied this morning demonstrates a second aspect of trust: “One day Hillel the Elder was returning from a journey. As he approached his neighborhood he heard cries. He said, ‘I am confident that the cries do not come from my house.’ This is an illustration of the verse (Psalms 112:7), ‘He is not afraid of evil tidings, his heart is firm, he trusts in the Lord.'” (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 15:3)

Here Hillel is presented as someone with ultimate trust, or faith, in God. This can easily be mis-read as a kind of naive faith. I don’t think that’s what the text is trying to say. Hillel’s attitude towards life is calm and resilient; his first instinct is not to worry, but rather to firmly trust in the strength of his heart and the support of God.

Trust and faith thus figure prominently in both of these stories, as they do generally in the stories of Hillel. What makes Hillel such a compelling figure is his emunah, his faith. Not, as I stated earlier, a naive or blind faith, but rather a faith that leads him to act generously and graciously, to never lose his temper, to focus on the possibilities of human encounters rather than on their risks.

As we enter Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur, Hillel reminds us of the kind of person we aspire to be–patient, giving, and secure in his faith.

Shabbat shalom – Gemar chatima tova.

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