There is a story about some fellow named Hillel. He was a pretty open minded and loving person. He’s the guy who said you shouldn’t judge a man until you’ve walked in his shoes. I suppose this story I am about to tell illustrates compassion.
Hillel and this other fellow Shammai were leaders of the Jewish community in the first century AD (although they didn’t use that calendar. The Jewish Calendar would have been about 3,800ish.) If Hillel was a pillar of love and compassion Shammai was a pillar of order and justice, which is ok. I mean there has to be balance, otherwise we have chaos or dictatorship.
Anyway, prospective converts would come to Shammai and Hillel looking to enter the Jewish faith. First they would come to Shammai and he would judge them. The phrase is, I believe, “judge them with his measuring rod”. I like to think that that means he would see they didn’t measure up, hit them with his stick, and send them on their way. It is a dramatic image.
After that they would go to Hillel, who had a reputation of being a really nice guy. This is a story of one of those prospective converts.
“I want to convert to Judaism,” he said. “But I don’t have much patience. So I want you to teach me all of Jewish Law while I hop on one foot.”
And the fellow started to hop, right their in front of Hillel, leader of The Great Assembly, the Sanhedrin. Myself, personally, I would figure this guy was a really loopy and disrespectful fellow. But who am I to talk. Hillel obviously saw something inside him of value.
Hillel’s line is taken from Leviticus 19, verse 18.
“You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19, verse 18.
Hillel turns it over a bit so we can understand it. Love? What is love and how do you understand it? And, anyway, it is easy to be nice, give someone a hug, throw money in a hat, all good things to do. But if you can understand your own pain and see that pain in others, to the extent that you would not want to see them suffer because you see yourself in them, that’s compassion, man. That’s what Hillel said. Yes, you should certainly go walking in someone else’s shoes before you think you can understand him.
By the way, that level of compassion was seen in another fellow by the name of Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, also known as Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Good Name… The Besht. He walked in many different types of shoes.
But that’s another story.