And as the bloodshot eyes closed for the last time, a pair of bright, calm blue eyes opened for the first time in faraway Babylonia. The tiny newborn seemed to stare into the face of his older brother. Little Shebna, five years of age, stared back and said nothing.
“I can swear he is looking at Shebna,” said their father. “But of course it’s impossible! Newborns can’t see!”
“Nonsense, Gamaliel” said the mother, a good-looking woman no longer in her first youth. She looked affectionately at her husband and settled herself more comfortably on her pillows. “Of course they can see. I don’t care what all the astrologers and other wise men say. They don’t know what mothers know. Newborns can see, and indeed he is looking at Shebna.”
Shebna was not listening. He stroked the baby’s fuzzy hair gently with one finger. “Red hair,” said Gamaliel, “as it runs in your family, my dear. A sure sign that indeed you are descendants of King David.” The mother smiled and passed her hand over her own red curls. She was, naturally, extremely proud of her heritage, and treasured the family records that were kept carefully for hundreds of years by all of King David’s many descendants.
“Shebna, touch his hand with your finger. See what happens!” said the mother.
The baby grasped the finger, held tight, and went on staring at Shebna. Shebna laughed, delighted.
“Do you know, Shebna, your face is the first thing he had ever seen,” said Gamaliel. “So he is going to love you very much. You must be good friends.”
“I will always take care of him,” said Shebna, unable to take his eyes off the tiny miracle who held him with his little fist. “He is as sweet as my rabbits and kittens.”
“I believe you will,” said Gamaliel quietly.
“What is his name?” asked Shebna.
“Well, the family names available now are Judah and Hillel. Since we don’t use the names of living people, and your grandfather is thankfully very much alive, we can’t call him Simeon. Of course we can go out of the family names, but I rather would like to keep to them. What do you think, Hannah?"
“I think we should let Shebna choose,” said Hannah. “Would you like to do that, Shebna? I know you like to name your pets. Will it be Judah or Hillel?”
Shebna thought, his warm brown eyes concentrating on the baby, now fast asleep. “Hillel,” he said decisively. “Let’s call him Hillel.”
“Very well,” said Gamaliel, well pleased with the quick decision. He took Shebna’s hand. “We must let Mother and Hillel sleep for a while. They are very tired from all the work they did as he was being born. Would you like to come with me to the store?”
Together they left. Hannah smiled as she looked after them. Gamaliel was a large, heavy-set man with a comfortable little paunch. Shebna was a small and delicate child. And yet they closely resembled each other. They had some quality that united them, she thought sleepily, something solid and comforting and lovable. Hillel will probably be just like them, shrewd, reliable, self-sufficient. Two excellent sons, any woman would be proud of them; it would be fun to have a little girl someday, too… She closed her eyes as one of her servants came in and put Hillel in his little cot.
The tired mother could not know that her tiny newborn would never be a comfortable man of business. He would, instead, tower as the most important figure in Judaism since Moses the Law Giver. Against the horrors of his age, he would emerge as a man of wisdom, compassion and courage, and without ever committing a single act of violence, staunchly defend his people against the tyranny and cruelty of an insane king. He would become an influential sage, the head of a famous school named after him, and the creator of some of the most important Judaic laws, instrumental in liberating and infusing life into the ancient traditions. Without his open approach and innovation, Judaism may have developed in a rigid and limited fashion, instead of the living, eternally growing religion it has become. Perhaps it would have even died. In turn, his ways influenced Christianity to a great extent, and many scholars believe he was the teacher of Jesus Christ; certainly the two shared much of their thoughts and feelings.
Hillel’s many sayings are still quoted, his laws still practiced. The stories relating his kindness, intelligence, and love of study are still told. They appear in textbooks, novels, movies, and one of his famous sayings even flashes on the screen as promotion for Public Television. In almost every campus in the United States, a center for the Jewish students is named after Hillel. His Golden Rule has softly drifted down the centuries, never to be forgotten, concisely stating the most positive concept in a strangely negative, humanistic, timeless way: “Do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you. The rest is commentary; go study.”
To fully appreciate Hillel’s personal heritage, one must remember that the Jewish aristocracy carefully preserved their family trees. Even today, many families can trace their lineage extremely far back…