Shammai’s Gems to Live By

:שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת 

In Pirkei Avot 1:15, we read: “Shammai used to say: make your [study of the] Torah a fixed practice; speak little, but do much; and receive everyone with a pleasant countenance.”

Shammai, whose legal opinions often lose out to Hillel’s and who is a little less famous, drops one of the best gems in the whole Pirkei Avot in this Mishna. He lists three habits that, if followed, will lead to a much happier life.

The key to accomplishing something that is important to you is setting a specific time to do it. I say to our camp staff, “you can do anything you want to do, but you can’t do everything you want to do. And if you really want to do it, schedule it!” If I want to spend more time with chanichim (campers), I need to put it in my calendar. Otherwise, the idea of making them late-night french fries sounds good, but it doesn’t happen. I see so many people have goals they don’t reach because they simply don’t put it on their calendar. 

“Speak little, but do much.” There are many variations of this idea, but Shammai’s version is the oldest I know. For me, as a rabbi, this is a cautionary tale. Many people spin a good tale of all the things they want to do or rail against what’s wrong in the world. Few people go out and do something about it. Words can inspire, but when a dugma ishit (a personal role model) puts into action the values they believe in, they encourage others to join them. This is one of the greatest powers of Ramah. Chanichim look up to their madrichim (counselors) and want to be like them when they grow up. When they see them do things, they want to do the same. It is a tremendous responsibility, and a tremendous opportunity. 

Shammai finishes it off with a little thing that makes all the difference: “receive everyone with a pleasant countenance.” A smile is powerful: when you see someone at camp who smiles, says hi, and asks how you are doing, it can light up your day. When you see someone who is preoccupied, looks away or is grumpy, it can bring you down. More often than not, people aren’t being mean; it’s simply that their mind is probably elsewhere. Shammai’s use of the word “receive” is interesting. I think he is suggesting that we always view others as our honored guests. If we treat everyone as an honored guest, no matter where we are, then we can lift each other up. 

This week, set a fixed time to do one thing you really want to do, put into action one value that you always talk about, and try to smile and say hello to everyone you meet along the way. Shabbat Shalom.

Categories: Director, Dvar Torah, Shabbat