Hillel (Pirke Avot 1:6)
I consider myself a God fearing, moral and generally good person, so my initial answer is, “yes.“ I believe that this answer may be a security blanket of sorts, which lets me sleep well with myself. And yet, when I am brutally honest, my answer is that, at best, I probably would have remained silent or possibly even gone with the crowd.
What haunts me today is not merely a past hypothetical question but whether I am honestly confronting and responding to the moral challenges of today.
In Pirke Avot, Hillel taught, “Where there are no worthy persons, strive to be a worthy person.” On the surface, his teaching seems like an easy, feel-good, proverb that, in practice, should not be difficult to accomplish. But, look deeper and you will recognize that what Hillel is demanding of us is extremely difficult.
Think about it this way: when there are relatively few personal dangers, prosperous times, you are surrounded by decent people living decent lives, and the values and morals of the society around you do not conflict greatly with your own, it is not hard to be a good person. If however, the world has been turned upside down, everyone around you is following corrupt or evil leaders and societal values and morals are misguided, do you think you could stand against the tide?
The lives of our prophets are wonderful examples of grappling with this question. The general “prophet story” is that the society/people of Israel have abandoned God's Torah and have fallen into the abyss of lawlessness, injustice, and moral depravity. The prophet must stand up against the king, the priests and the general populace and declare that they have strayed and must return to God or face punishment and, ultimately, destruction.
No wonder most prophets didn't want to accept the job for which God had picked them ! They knew what an incredibly difficult and dangerous a job it was. You will notice too, in the TaNaKh, that there were many more false prophets than true prophets.
Hillel's teaching, when applied, demands each of us act like the prophets. It requires that we constantly gauge the values and actions of those around us, or in the larger society, to ascertain whether they are in in concert with what is ethically and morally correct. Further, once we determine that, we must act in a manner that is consonant with our values.
So, what can we rely on to determine what is right? And, is that judgment a completely individual one?
In some ways, the prophets had it easier than we do because God spoke directly to them and pointed out what was right and wrong. We may not have the same type of Divine revelation that the prophets had, but we do have the gift of God's revelation by way of the Torah and the rest of the TaNaKh. Each generation continues the dialogue with God, taking the core values represented in these sacred texts and applying them to the ethical dilemmas and challenges which face them.
It is Torah that can assist each of us in gauging what is required of us and whether we are acting in accordance with God's and the Jewish people's shared values.
Therefore it is incumbent upon each one of us to study Torah (in its broadest sense) and to live it! I believe only then would we be on the way to fulfilling Hillel's directive and Moses's hope that “all of the Lord's people would be prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). We should always remember that Torah is our moral compass, the prophets our models of action, and God our strength and certainty.
Reprinted by permission of Rabbi Michael Singer, Malverne Jewish Center, Malverne, New York.