Pirke Avot 1:14

If I am not for myself,

who will be for me?

And if I am for myself,

what am I?

And if not now, when?

This is another saying of Hillel – and one of the more famous ones.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? 

We have, in 1:14, one of the central tensions in the life of human beings – a tension which existed long ago and remains today!

We have an obligation, a responsibility, to take care of ourselves.  To be “for ourselves”.  This responsibility includes providing for ourselves a place to be, food to eat, and things to drink.   This responsibility also includes taking care of our physical health, as well as our spiritual and mental health.   And so we work and we plan and we save.

After all, if we don’t – who else will?  Yes, mom and dad when we are young – but that comes to an end as we become adults in our own right.  And while society / our community / our government has a certain role to play in providing a safe and just environment, educational opportunities etc. – it is not their responsibility to provide for those who are able to provide for themselves.  (It is another situation altogether for those who are unable to provide for themselves.)

But …   And this is a BIG BUT…

And if I am for myself, what am I?  The rabbinic commentators generally insert an “only” here as in:  If I am ONLY for myself, what am I?  Rabbinic Judaism and Roman Catholicism (my own tradition) assert that we are NOT rugged individuals making our own solitary path in life – responsible to no one and asking nothing from anyone.  We are, inherently, at the depth of our being, social creatures, connected to others.

Hence the tension.  I must be for myself and be responsible, yet I must also care for others and be in relationship with them.  And only when in communion with others can I develop to my full personal potential.

 

We are tightly connected to one another.

Somehow I have to figure out how to do that.  Where might I turn for guidance?  Scripture, our faith tradition, the wisdom of the past that remains wisdom for today.

And if not now, when?  We live right now, in this moment in time.  We may not be here tomorrow and we can do nothing about yesterday.  So, let’s not waste time in day-dreaming about what we are going to do for ourselves or others in the future.  Let’s not waste time regretting or celebrating what we did for ourselves or others last year.  Live now, fully, in the present moment.  Responsible for ourselves and yet in full and loving communion with those around us.

Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz would rise each morning and shout: “Wake up brothers!  A guest you’ve never seen has arrived!  Once he leaves you will never see him again!”

“Who are you talking about?” they would ask.

“Today.” replied the rabbi.

So, some questions to ponder:

  1. How well am I doing in providing for myself (financially but also spiritually, morally, physically?  Are some areas of the self left under-developed while we overly concentrate on the financial side?
  2. Who are those in my life that I feel connected to?  How are we connected to them?
  3. Am I able to live in the moment, in the now?  Or am I somehow stuck in the past or preoccupied with the future?