"'Then will I remember My Covenant Yaakov'. Of old the earth's foundation
You laid, and the work of Your hands is the heavens’; Bet Shammai and Bet
Hillel. Bet Shammai taught, 'the heavens were created first', while Bet
Hillel taught,' the earth was created first'. Rabbi Yochanan in the name
of the Sages taught, 'In creation the heavens came first but in
improvement the earth had precedence'. Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi
Shimon said, 'Although my father taught that they were created
simultaneously, but still sometimes the heavens are mentioned first and at
other times the earth is mentioned first, that shows that they are equal'.
However, always Avraham is mentioned first among the Patriarchs but here
the verse mentions Yaakov first'."(Midrash Rabba, chapter 36).
Although we might think that it is of little consequence whether the
heavens or the earth were created first, the discussion between Bet
Shammai and Bet Hillel comes to teach us great and important things.
Every person is a world unto them-selves so that everything in the world
has its counterpart in a person. The heavens are like a person's mind and
come to teach the necessity of elevating oneself through studying, knowing
and understanding the greatness of G-d. Earth is like a person's heart and
comes to teach a way towards G-d through humility, the frailty of human
endeavor and the worthlessness of the human being; "The Lord will not
despise a broken heart"(Psalms, 51:19). [The Admor Menachem Mendel of
Kotsk taught that, ”There is nothing more complete than the broken
heart”]. A person is not complete until they are able to possess both
heart and mind. One needs the elevations of one's mind and wisdom,
together with the humility and lowly spirit of the heart. It is obvious
that a person cannot achieve both of these attributes quickly or easily.
This requires a process of education and the discussion between the two
sages, Shammai and Hillel, is concerned with the correct way of starting
the process, as each of the attributes has good and bad qualities. The
mind that can lead a person to elevate themselves through study, the
inquiring mind and the seeking of knowledge, can also lead to arrogance
and a gross and crude spirit. These then lead to a rejection of HaShem.
Earth can truly lead one to humility but it can also also bring one to
despair, depression and negation of one's own worth. This then leads one
Bet Shammai who taught that the heavens were created first, believe that
only if one first uses the brain and wisdom can one understand the
greatness of G-d, the wisdom of His works and subject themselves to Him.
Bet Hillel believe that one should commence with the broken heart,
otherwise reliance on the mind and wisdom could lead one to arrogance, to
pride and to chutzpa.
It would seem that the halakha is in accordance with Rabbi Yochanan in the
name of the Sages, who said that first the creation was of heaven but the
improvement, purification and finesse was of the earth. So, the beginning
of the way to G-d is through the mind and through wisdom, while it has to
be refined and improved through the heart. It seems as though Bet Hillel
actually agrees with this. He said, "If I am not for myself, who will be
for me. If I am only for myself, what am I?" (Avot, chapter 1,mishna 14).
So a person should start their way to HaKodosh Barukh Hu by elevating
their minds and thoughts, but should not be content with that. Then should
come the worship through the heart, so that one should learn humility.
[One should note that humility is not the same as the lack of self-esteem
or of the intrinsic value of oneself]. The process should not stop there.
Rather one should strive for the continued elevation of the mind through
study and ecstasy in prayer.
We can see a parallel between this discussion and the events of Pesach,
the period of Sefirat Haomer and Matan Torah on Shavuot.
It is well known that Pharaoh was the epitome of the negative aspects of
the mind and wisdom. He said, “Who is G-d that I should hearken to Him. I
know not G-d” (Shmot 5:2) and “ The river Nile is mine, I created it “
(Yechezkel 29:9). He affected the sons of Yaakov in this, so that when
Israel was in Egypt they were devoid of divine wisdom. Then through the
Exodus and kriat Yam Suf they reached great heights of wisdom and
knowledge. However, they were unable to maintain these great heights and
their thinking reverted to the petty, the selfish and the arrogant. They
were given the 49 days of Siferat HaOmer to purify their nefesh habeheimit
and achieve the broken heart. Then they were able to merit Matan Torah
that is the elevation of the mind, in greater intensity and force.
Shem Mi Shmuel 5674
[The centrality of learning and wisdom to religiosity that is so clear
here should not surprise us as this is the hallmark not only of the ShemMi
Shmuel, but of the whole school of Physcha to which he belonged. In his
commentary to Beha’alotcha, he calls the ecstasy of the mind the highest
form of ecstasy].