Avot 1:14 [Hillel] used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And if I am [only] for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
This is very likely the most well known and oft-quoted of Hillel’s sayings, and possibly of all Pirkei Avot. Hebrew songs are written that capture the poetic lilt of the opening, ‘Im ein ani li, mi li ?’ The key questions posed by Hillel in this verse touch upon the pivotal factors of our daily existence. The concepts addressed are central to a person’s self esteem and to his or her relationship with others.
In most commentary the questions are viewed as rhetorical, in effect: “Stick up for yourself or no-one else will; if you are only concerned with your own selfish interests you are unworthy; don’t procrastinate, now is the time to take action!” These, of course, have merit; however, when we are faced with an important decision, it also is worthwhile to apply them as questions that can aid us in finding the best solution.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
The first level of meaning, in this section of the verse, is applied to our physical existence. In general, it requires one’s own efforts and diligence to make a living and to acquire the means of providing for one’s needs and, where applicable and appropriate, for those of one’s family. Each of us needs to define our role and the accompanying responsibility in our particular situation. Once the roles are clear, for example in a working or marriage relationship, the responsibilities, and the accompanying authority and accountability, can be allocated in a way that is most beneficial to each person. This also assures the most harmonious and productive functioning of the home or the business.
One also can read this question as, “If I am not myself, who can I be?” God has created each person as a unique individual with a specific call and purpose to fulfill during their time on this earth. He is faithful to lead and direct our paths according to His purposes. As we walk, we need only look to Him trusting to to hear His voice and to go forward in loving obedience. Although He knows the end from the beginning of our path, most often we only see one step ahead. What is important, as we faithfully take each step, is simply to be the person He created each of us to be and this only He can confirm in one’s deepest heart. Our Father, the Creator of all, knows us and defines us and our true identity is found in Him.
The view, “If I don’t fend for myself, no one else will,” carries a hint of cynicism and could foster independent self-reliance. Independence is good, up to a point, but can result in pride in those with strong personalities and who forge ahead successfully in the material sphere of life.
Another point to consider is that things don’t always work out so well. As the saying goes, “Stuff happens!” The economy collapses, disaster strikes in one form or another, and then the question becomes, “If I cannot help myself, who will be for me?” When the test comes, it usually clarifies those who are your true friends and allies – who truly is for you.
And, if I am [only] for myself, what am I?
The most common translation of this part of the verse includes ‘only,’ which renders the question rhetorical and restricts the meaning to the negative issue of selfishness. The reality that prideful selfishness is at the root of the majority of sins warrants attention, together with our recognition of the need to minimize this negative trait in our lives. This powerful “I” of the ego, always insisting, “I want…,” “I come first!,” “I have a right to…” is called in Hebrew the yetzer ha’ra – the evil inclination. Just as one has a God-given conscience, a leaning toward good, one has a fleshly ego that consistently pulls one toward self gratification, and the quicker, more instant the gratification the better! The apostle Paul bemoaned this reality very emphatically! “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, [the yetzer ha’ra] warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom.7:22-23).
One’s true ‘self’, made in the image of God, is directed and strengthened by one’s spirit that is wooed and led by God’s Spirit of holiness. The ongoing battle during one’s journey through life, is between the spirit within and, as referred to by Paul and what Abraham Twerski calls, the “physical-animal drive” that needs constant harnessing. Twerski quotes the concept that this yetzer ha’ra, that demands gratification at any cost, is like an alien power that seeks to destroy its host (Kiddushin 30b). The true “you” within, has great spiritual capacities when trained by the Word of God in Messiah and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We are assured, by the Lord of hosts, that we can overcome the evil inclination, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,” (Zec.4:6).
One also can read this section of the verse as a continuation of the first: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And, if I am for myself, what am I?” This again emphasizes the need to be clear and aware of one’s call and role, and the ethical issues of what I owe to others in that role and what others owe to me. In other words, “How best can I function together with others in my role for the mutual benefit of all?” The balance indicated by Hillel is that one should take the initiative in serving one’s personal interests as well as the interests of others. We need to carefully balance our own needs together with our obligations to others. William Berkson describes this balance as: “…a contrast to both the ‘look out for number one’ ethics of Ayn Rand and the view of Calvin that self-denial is at the heart of being good and ethical.”
And if not now, when?
The last of the three questions addresses the strategic and important issue of timing. In a rhetorical sense it is a directive against the chief of all time wasters: procrastination. As a positive question, it raises the necessity of examining options and also of deciding when to take action. Is the matter urgent? Would it be wiser to postpone the decision, or to delay the action? If now is not the best time to act, when would be? We know, only too well, that hesitation often can result in missed opportunities. However, on the other hand, acting too quickly and impulsively can have disastrous consequences.
Kohelet reminds us, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven:…” (Ecc.3:1-18), then continues to list different key actions of life. Hillel is asking, in effect, “Is this the right time to act? And, if so, what is the appropriate action to take?” To arrive at the most fitting and productive answer requires a balance of the principles of initiative and of security. After prayerful consideration and seeking the counsel and wisdom of others where possible, one needs the freedom to act in accord with reasonable and creative judgment based on one’s assessment of the situation, while protecting one’s security in all areas as far as one is able.
Hillel’s three questions tackle basic practical issues of daily living and, just as they have throughout the generations, they remain relevant and applicable to active decision making and problem-solving for us today.
1. Rabbi A. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 56
2. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 42