Thursday, October 29th 2020   |

Say Little, Do Much: Action


The title of this weekly column, “Say Little, Do Much,” is (while partially in reference to its brevity) taken from Pirkei Avot 1:15, where it is listed as a favorite teaching of Shammai. Shammai was not entirely original in his perspective. To Confucius is attributed the similar maxim, “The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.” Confucius was a Chinese teacher, politician, and philosopher, born in 551 BCE, half a millenium before Shammai and Hillel engaged in their famous disputes

Did Shammai know the Confucian proverb, or is valuing meaningful action over mere rhetoric a perspective transcending time and culture? Their shared sentiment seems to be contradicted by the Passover Haggadah’s statement that “the more you expand in discussing the Exodus, the more you are to be praised.” The Seder (or whenever liberty is in peril) is no time to “say little.”

If we are to be faithful disciples of Shammai (and the Chinese sage who anticipated his wisdom), we will continue to do… more than we say. If we are to be expansive in our words at the Seder, we have a commensurate obligation to be “exceedingly” thorough in our actions in the cause of freedom, the topic of our sacred Seder night verbosity. A praiseworthy goal indeed.

(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)

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