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“If I Am Not For Myself…”

The Rabbi quoted the following in his sermon: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Who said this and what do you think it means?

This statement was made by Hillel the Elder (in Pirkei Avot Chapter 1:14), the leader of the Jewish Supreme Court in the Land of Israel in the early part of the 1st Century CE.

The teaching you have quoted is coming to deal with the tensions between self and non-self. In other words, every person struggles on a daily basis with the balance between what one does for oneself and what one expects from others. Hillel is saying that the bottom line is that one’s life is in one’s own hands – don’t expect anyone to make your life for you because they can’t and won’t. On the other hand, if one’s focus is only on oneself to the exclusion of others, then what value does the person have? To be completely selfish is to lose touch with the rest of the world, to lose touch with life.

The connection between the first and last part of the teaching is not obvious. The last part is saying that since we don’t know what each hour will bring, we must respond to each moment as if it is a once in a lifetime opportunity – ‘if not now’, when are you going to have another chance. On a deeper level, it could be saying that each moment in our lives is unique – even though it may seem that the opportunity to do something returns the next day, the context is never the same.

I hope I’ve given you some food for thought,


Ari Lobel

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