Parashat Yitro: On One Foot?

Parashat Yitro: On One Foot?

(delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks on February 2, 2024)

According to a popular Talmudic tale,[1] a stranger once approached Hillel and Shammai, the great sages of the first century, with a request: “Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot.” First, he brought the request to Shammai. According to the Talmud, Shammai picked up a builder’s rule, smacked him alongside his head and dismissed him.

So he came to Hillel. “Teach me the Torah on one foot.” Hillel taught him: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Zil u-g’mar, now, go and learn.” We all acknowledge Hillel’s answer. It is loving, accepting and kind.

But, if you think about it, Shammai was right.

The stranger comes with the request, “Teach me the Torah on one foot.” What was he really asking? What was he seeking? He wants spiritual enlightenment without spiritual discipline. He seeks inner peace without the arduous process of facing his own darkness. He wants wisdom without the work. He is looking for a Torah presented in monaural–monolithic, doctrinal, authoritative–a simple truth to live by, void of complexity, detail and nuance–and quickly. Who has time to master all those dusty books?

Rabbis hear this every day. But we are bound to disappoint, because Judaism never comes that way. That’s not how Jews think. In our tradition, there is a distinct pattern, a texture of thinking. You find it everywhere–in Bible, Talmud, philosophy. It is never on one foot.

Perhaps in God’s mind, truth is unified. But when it reaches us, it refracts into dialectics. Truth is always argument, tension, polarity. Truth is too big to fit into simple maxims, too important to set down in simple discursive rules, too unwieldy to learn on one foot. Judaism teaches us to acquire a taste for complexity and contradiction.

Rav Naftali Tzvi. the Ropshitzer Rebbe,[2] told his Hasidim that before he was born an angel appeared and showed him a tablet divided into two columns. On the right side it offered Talmud Taanit: “The learned person should be a fiery furnace.” On the left side it quoted Talmud Sanhedrin: “The meek and lowly shall inherit the world to come.”

On the right side from Talmud B’rachot: “A person should be wise in their fear of G!d.” And on the left side from Yalkut Shimoni: “You should be simple-hearted in your love of HaSehm.”

On the right side from the Talmud: “G!d wants the heart.” And on the left side, from the Prophet Jeremiah: “The heart of G!d’s people is corrupt and wayward.”

And the Rebbe pondered the contradictions. Until he heard the voice of the angels announcing, “You are now to be born.” Whereupon he resolved in his heart to follow both columns no matter the contradictions.

To be Jewish is to live in both columns. It is to live with tension, ambivalence, and paradox. “Polarity,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is at the heart of Judaism.”

Consider this image: A pendulum, swinging back and forth. The arc described by the pendulum is truth. If you stop the pendulum anywhere along the arc, and you declare, “This point here at the zenith, this is the truth” … or if you stop it down at the midpoint and assert, “This is truth”–you are wrong. You will always be wrong, because truth is the pendulum in motion.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin taught that every difficult, complex problem–in politics, life, or thought–always has a simple answer, which is always wrong. Not just wrong–deadly.

Throughout human history, we Jews have always been the exception to somebody’s rule. We have always been the anomaly to someone’s absolute. And we have suffered for it. This is why extremism of any kind makes us so anxious. It is what scares us about fundamentalism and simplistic moralism. We respond viscerally. Whatever reduces truth to a simple absolute reduces us.

Every morning we recite, “Blessed is G!d who creates light and darkness, peace and everthing else.” Ours is not a monism, reducing all experience to one principle, one idea, one path, denying the contrasts and the reality of tensions. But neither are we dualists who break everything into sharp disjunctions between good and evil, light and darkness, religious and secular, us and them.

We are monotheists. We can acknowledge the contrasts in experience because we affirm that beneath them there is a basic unity. This is the meaning of the first of the Ten Commandments we read tomorrow morning: Ani Adonai Eloheichem. I am HaShem your G!d. In worshiping one G!d, we embrace life’s rich complexity.







We insist upon it.

 Shabbat shalom.


[1] BT, Shabbat 31a.

[2] Rabbi Naftali Tzvi (1760-1827) was a Galician rabbi who founded the Ropshitzer Hassidic dynasty. He was known for his profound wisdom, sharp sense of humor, and musical gifts.

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