Wisdom is buried in history – not just American history. Time on history is never wasted. Biblical leaders, New Testament and Old, are filled with learning. They faced similar struggles, offer hints and echoes, shadows and shafts, advice for when we fail from “beyond the veil.” Hillel the Elder is one such scholar. His advice is timely, may help fix what ails the nation.
The early Jewish scholar put down big ideas, the sort that bounce around in your brain, prick your conscience, and lift your heart. With New Testament promise on our minds this week, between Western and Orthodox Easters, Passover just finished, Hillel’s words are apt.
Like other scholars – Socrates and Aristotle to Emerson and Thoreau – Hillel appreciated life’s seasons, nature’s beauty, and the balance between self and others. He seems to have caught on the breeze things we often let go these days, but which still matter.
Awaking to daily news, we get angry, discouraged, disoriented, often disgusted. Traditional norms – things that define humanity, assure stability, and affirm Americans’ freedom – are derided, devalued, and in some cases, just openly trashed.
We see the rise of group resentments, re-tribalization of what was a shining example of “getting along for the greater good.” We see shameless self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment by our political leaders, public corruption, disrespect for institutions, mass pettiness, self-absorption.
Here is the good news. None of this mess, wandering in the weed garden of unsustainable nonsense – power-grabbing socialism, public corruption, venomous politics, and self-destruction – is inevitable or irreversible.
Missing is the chorus. What Chorus? The chorus of public objection, awareness of what is needed, and action to support it. Missing is confidence in our conscience, in moral absolutes, legal and ethical principles, accountability, and protection of the nation – things that transcend political party or personality.
Missing is national confidence in what we know to be historically, scientifically, morally, and observably true. The sun rises in the east, sets in the west, conscience matters, we cannot rest.
This is the advice that Hillel captured in his simple way – driving home what we all know or should, reminding us to expend energy to get it right. His words make you realize that humanity never really changes, and that working for the truth is both hard and worth the effort.
There is a certain urgency now to thinking, feeling, living, and acting on conscience. We are called on to dig deeper, find and hold truth, and then – with confidence – speak it, sing it, shout it, share it, and celebrate it. We are not infused with knowledge so we will sit on it.
Suggested Hillel – in a time wracked by instability like ours – we need to think about who we are, want to be, and the power we have to get there. We need to think about who we can become, and take a bead on that far horizon, then boldly start the trek in that direction.
These days, we see leaders grabbing power and money for themselves, betraying the public trust, acting as if destruction of souls in the name of saving souls is defensible. Never. They boldly lie, herd citizens into groups, forget the individual soul, pit us against each other, like the Romans.
Wrote Hillel: “Whoever destroys one soul, it is as if he has destroyed the entire world; whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved the entire world.” Think about that against the backdrop of disinterest in runaway drug availability and abuse, stealing 100,000 young souls a year, or in terms of those who promote abortion which silences millions of souls, or in terms of rising crime, inflation, fear, anxiety, and suicide, wounding and taking souls.
Two other Hillel nuggets are worth mention. Hate grows when we let it, stops when we stop it. Like the Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow.” How many of our leaders believe that, taken that to heart, understand its import, and act on it?
His last is the best, a rallying cry for those of moral fiber, who understand we get just one short stretch to get it right in our lives, with those we love, and for our society – for America.
If we have the power to know ourselves, better ourselves, and help our neighbors and society with what we know, then on whom does that obligation lie? On what timetable? Hillel wrote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not me, whom? If not now, when?”
History does not teach that correcting society is easy, but it does teach that hope, knowledge, effort, and action produce self-correction – especially when motivated by individuals with knowledge and heart. That is us. Hillel is one of many, but his words resonate, or they should.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.