The rest is commentary

There’s a story about Hillel the Elder, one of the most central figures in Jewish religious literature. One day, a prospective convert approached him exacting an explanation of the Torah so short it could be delivered while the gentile stood on one foot. Only then they’d would be willing to embrace Judaism. Hillel the Elder, his legacy now famed for its clarity and conciseness, said something to the effect of: treat others the way you want to be treated, that’s the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go study.1

There’s an acuteness that I derive from this sentence. It was the first typographic tattoo I ever got. There are three things here that I love.

The golden rule

It returns to me again and again. It is present, of course, in all of my relationships with humans whose suffering is no more or less important than mine, who worry like I do, and who deserve the best of how I would want to be treated. It’s an aspirational maxim with which I struggle every day.

Thinking big, thinking small

It also returns as the fruit produced by one’s power to look at all parts of the elephant and see what it means to us. Perhaps the only greater way of zooming out of the Torah, the New Testament, or the Quran is to say the world “love” in any language. It returns in my Bible study, in which I closely read small passages and connect them to this big picture. It shows up at work, where the main skill I actually provide is that of quickly thinking in systems while tending to the details of stakeholder relationships, design hand-offs, developer questions.

Go study

In a theological context, I fantasize about what it meant to “go study” the text that could be summarized in a single sentence. I see the image of making dough for croissants, and the way we continuously knead butter into it, enriching the dough. Every time I read the Bible I find something new, even in a passage I’m visiting for the fiftieth time. To see it through the lens of that one sentence is a great pleasure.


  1. This story can be found in the Shabbat 31a portion of the Talmud ↩︎

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