Sermon: Standing on One Foot - Rosh Hashanah

Standing on One Foot

Rosh HaShana Sermon

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell 

Staunton/Harrisonburg, Virginia

12/13 September 20071 Tishrei 5768 

Three months ago, I broke my foot. It is still in the process of healing. Two people suggested that I speak to you today on “The Torah that I have learned while standing on one foot.” Knowlegable Jews both, they hoped, perhaps,  that I would be able to use Hillel’s famous response to the sceptic as a jumping off point, so to speak, for my Rosh HaShana derash. As you may remember, the 1st century sage Shammai was approached by an individual who asked him to teach the entire Torah as he stood on one foot. As the Talmud relates the story, after Shammai chased away the questioner, chiding him for the foolishness of his question, the sceptic approached Shammai’s colleague and rabbinic rival, Hillel. Hillel responded: "that which you hate, don't do to others. That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn! " (BT: Shabbat 31a). 

I have been blessed over the last year to have completed a three year study program at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where I was one of thirty rabbis from across the US and Canada who traveled to Israel to study for a month in the summer and for a week in the winter. While in Israel, and every week when we were not together in person, we studied with leading Israeli scholars, exploring traditional texts and asking new questions and acquiring fresh insights. This cross-denominational program brought together an extraordinary group of teachers who are privileged to serve large and small congregations, and communities of elders and lay learners. By sharing our expertise and experience, we were all able to deepen our rabbinates and to strengthen our ability to read and interpret the rich textual legacy of our tradition. 

In July, I began another study program. Together with 36 rabbis from across the world, I am now a student at the Jewish Spirituality Institute. In many ways, this is the perfect complement to my years of immersion in text study through Hartman. The IJS program welcomes rabbis to explore meditation, yoga, Hasidic teachings and silence as means of deepening our own spirituality and, ultimately, our rabbinates.  

Both of these intense study programs send the rabbis who choose to study in them back to the sources, back to the text. In both programs, we ask again and again: what is the essential message of the text? What is the “ikar,” the root, the essence, the basis, foundation, importance, the principle of the teaching? So, armed with my teachers’ direction to take a second and third and a fourth look at texts that I thought I understood, or texts that seem to be so basic that they teach themselves, I ask you to join me in a consideration of this Talmudic story of Hillel and Shammai.            This is one of the first stories we, as Jews, as Jewish parents and as Jewish educators, learn and teach. The questioner first approached Shammai. The question Shammai heard was: “Teach me the entire Torah in the few seconds that I wobble before you attempting to stand on one foot.” Shammai, who is often portrayed in our ancient texts as impatient or unreasonably stringent, dismisses the questioner. 

What are some other understandings of standing on one foot?The practice of yoga includes a number of positions that focus on balancing the body on one foot, and then on the other. The practioner learns to focus attention so completely that it is possible to stand without falling, gracefully posed and balanced on one foot. For years, I have been working on this pose. Sometimes, I am able to sufficiently focus my attention and intention, compose myself, and, for a few magic seconds, I am balanced. But I must work at paying attention, to being fully present, to focusing, to listening to my body and quieting my mind. Standing on one foot demands work.  

Perhaps Hillel sensed this when the questioner, who is referred to as an outsider or foreigner, a ger, approached him and asked the same question. The Talmud does not record the exact formulation of the question, nor any helpful details about the questioner. So we must use our own life experience, and our imaginations, to reconstruct this simple tale. Is a scoffer approaching our sages to make fun of them—and of Judaism? Or do we have here a person who senses that she stands near the entrance to a beautiful castle filled with rooms set with magnificent banquets. She has heard from travelers of the beauty of this place, the generosity of its inhabitants, the peace of those who make this their home. She is simply seeking a way in. When Hillel was approached, perhaps with the same question as was posed by Shammai, Hillel listens for the question behind the question. Perhaps he looks into the eyes of the one who questions and sees hunger and desire and loneliness. As recorded in the Talmud, Hillel responds, “"that which you hate, don't do to others. That is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn!"  

That which you hate, don’t do to others. In other places in our tradition, this double negative becomes a positive commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18). This direction, to behave towards others as we would like others to behave towards us,  to treat others as we would like to be treated, is often called The Golden Rule, for it is a value held by many of the religions, ethical traditions and spiritual pathways that guide the world’s people.  This ethics of reciprocity is considered here by the Dalai Lama:"Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people's suffering. On these lines every religion had more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal."          How would our lives change if we began taking this teaching, Hillel’s teaching to heart? Take a moment to think of ideal circumstances of waking up each day. Where would you like to awake? What words or music would you like to welcome you from sleep into wakefulness? What would you like to see when you open your eyes? Once you’ve gotten out of bed and stand on your feet, what feelings or thoughts or movements would help you prepare for the day ahead?  How would you nourish your body and then step out of your home to greet the world?  

Now think about how that vision of perfection directs us to treat others. Whether we live alone or with others, whether we wake up alone or beside another, whether we begin our day by waking others in our care or by responding to eager, waiting pets, what might it mean to be keep Hillel’s direction in our minds? How could we, from the moment we awake until we lie down again to sleep, how could we treat others as we would like to be treated? How do we love another throughout the day as we wished we were loved? When we learn to treat ourselves with compassion, intention and care, we have a much better chance of treating others with sensitivity. Once we begin listening to our own hungers and needs, to how we need to be in the world throughout every day, we will discover that we have also learned to listen to others’ hungers, to others’ joys, to others’ suffering.  Like Hillel, we can become experts at listening to the words beyond and behind the words that are articulated. We, too, may learn to hear the words that are never uttered.  

Tomorrow Jews across the globe will stand to listen to the blasts of the shofar, calling us to wake up and listen. For what should we listen? My goal for tomorrow is to be present, to be intentional, to use the same powers of concentration that I muster when I attempt to balance on one foot. I hope to open my heart to the raucous, ancient sounds of the shofar.  If I listen with full intention, perhaps I may be privileged to hear my own voice, echoing the voice of the ancient petitioner, seeking a way in to wisdom, to community, to a sense of the possibility of this new year.  I hope also that I will be able to hear Hillel’s kind and clear direction: begin with the most immediate action. Start treating others the way you want to be treated. This is indeed the ikar, the essence, the foundation of the whole Torah. Let us now go and listen and learn. 

L’shana tova.