A Sack of Feathers

Once a man approached Rabbi Hillel and asked him a question about the commandments:

“I understand why the Torah prohibits idolatry, murder, and stealing but why is there a commandment against slander? Surely this is not as grave a sin as the rest…”

Rabbi Hillel responded, “I will answer your question but first I must ask you to do something for me.”

“Of course,” said the man, “what is it?”

Rabbi Hillel handed the man a sack of feathers. “This evening place a feather on the front porch of every house in your neighborhood, then come back in the morning and I will answer your question.”

The man was perplexed by the request but he really wanted an answer to the question so he agreed to the terms. The next morning he returned and Rabbi Hillel greeted him with a smile.

“Did you do as I asked?”

“Yes,” the man replied, “Yesterday evening I placed a feather on the front porch of every house in my neighborhood, just as you asked. Now please answer my question about the commandments.”

“Patience,” said the Rabbi, “First do me this one last favor: go back and collect all those feathers you laid on those doorsteps and bring them back to me.”

The man laughed incredulously. “What you ask is impossible! Surely the wind has blown away every single one of those feathers by now. There’s simply no way I could retrieve them all for you!”

Rabbi Hillel’s eyes beamed and he said with a smile, “Ah… and so it is with slander. The lies we tell about our neighbors can never be retrieved. They are like feathers scattered to the wind.”

I love the Jewish tradition of Rabbi stories. Especially those where the Rabbis are given a difficult question and respond with a parable (a trait which readers of the Gospels find all too familiar). Rabbi Hillel stories are my favorite. Living in the century before the Common Era, Rabbi Hillel’s interpretations always emphasized God’s compassion over rigid adherence to law (that might be familiar too). This parable beautifully demonstrates the hurt we can cause with our words. Such damage is all too often irreversible. Who among us doesn’t have words they desperately wish that they could take back? But once a thing is said, no matter how many times you say you didn’t mean it and apologize, the words still linger and cause pain. A rumor similarly continues to spread like a wildfire. In this era of fake news and social media slander, we’d do well to remember that we are commanded to choose our words wisely. We are commanded not to invoke God’s name for our own purposes and to not bear false witness against our neighbors. What we say matters. Pray before you speak. A feather in the wind can never be retrieved.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Face of God

Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananiah had a peculiar relationship with the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Rabbi Joshua would often go to Hadrian’s court to advocate for the rights of his people against oppressive policies. Hadrian was not used to being talked to quite so boldly but he tolerated it. In fact, he enjoyed these visits because he liked to make sport of trying to stump the Rabbi with questions about his religion. Occasionally, Hadrian called Rabbi Joshua to his court for the sole purpose of questioning him.

One such day, Hadrian summoned Rabbi Joshua to his court. There in the room he had three statues depicting the Roman gods. He said to Rabbi Joshua, “These are the statues of but a few of our gods. We have many more. Look at their faces! This one, Venus, has a beautiful face that her devotees worship out of love. This one, Mars, has a terrible face that his devotees worship out of fear. And this one, Jupiter, has a regal face that his devotees worship out of respect. The face of a god tells its worshipers who it is. Tell me… what is the face of your god like?”

Rabbi Joshua dutifully responded, “The Torah teaches that no one can see the face of The Lord and yet live. We Jews worship the unseen God.”

Hadrian laughed. “How can you worship a god whose face you cannot even see?”

“Follow me,” said Rabbi Joshua, “and I will give you an answer.”

So the Emperor, enjoying having fun at the Rabbi’s expense, obliged him and followed him out into the courtyard. It was a hot summer day and the sun was shining very brightly. Rabbi Joshua said to him, “If you want to see the face of God, you must stare directly into the sun.”

Hadrian’s mood suddenly changed. “You fool,” he shouted, “You know very well I cannot look directly into the sun! Do you scheme to make your emperor blind?”

“Of course you cannot stare into the sun,” said Rabbi Joshua calmly, “but the sun is only a servant of our God. If you cannot behold the splendor of one of His servants, how could you possibly hope to gaze upon the face of God?”

Hadrian was speechless. He had once again been outwitted. Without a word, Rabbi Joshua departed to go back to his people and join them in their worship of an unseen God.

There is a whole tradition of Jewish parables that involve Romans questioning the Rabbis about their faith only to be outwitted in the end. The stories reflect the very real skepticism that the Romans had about monotheism and the extent to which Jews (and Christians) constantly had to defend themselves from mischaracterizations about what they believed. It was in this context of suspicion that the writer of 1 Peter told followers to “always be ready to defend your confidence in God.” Modern disciples live in an increasingly suspicious and skeptical world. Some people make sport of trying to make religious people look silly. While God does not call us to be trolls ourselves, we are called to be ready to defend, with patience and humility, our confidence in the unseen God.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…