The Talmud (Shabbat 31a), relates the strange story of a non-Jewish man who wished to convert to Judaism in order to ultimately become the High Priest of Israel. He believed that, in this way, he would attain a position of prestige, power and wealth. The man first went to the sage Shammai, who, upon hearing his plan, summarily turned the man away. Undaunted, the man then went to the sage Hillel and asked Hillel to convert him on condition that he then be appointed High Priest. Rather than turn the man down, Hillel sent the man to study the Torah, explaining that even a man who wishes to be king cannot be king unless he knows the laws of the land. When the man read the verse in this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, Numbers 1:51, “and the common man that comes close (to the holy parts of the Tabernacle) shall be put to death,” he questioned Hillel as to whom this law applied. Informed that even King David himself could not enter the Tabernacle, the man was humbled and retracted his request to become a High Priest. He nevertheless completed his conversion and, it is assumed, lived a long and happy Jewish life.

This selection is actually one of a series of three stories relating to converts who were turned away by Shammai but accepted and taught by Hillel. Each instance presented the sages with a strange ultimatum (teach me Torah while standing on one foot, teach me only the Written Torah without the Oral Law). While Shammai questioned their motives, Hillel embraced their minds and souls.

From these stories, a person might appreciate the validity of the old saying “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” To Shammai it was obvious that a person could not convert and become the High Priest (priesthood being an inherited status). Hillel, on the other hand, realized that through the recognition of why the man could not be High Priest, the man would see the beauty of the Torah itself.

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