Self, Society, Seconds?

1.14     This was another favorite teaching of his:

If I am not for me, who will be?
If I am for myself alone, what am I?
And if not now, when?

This third teaching of Hillel’s is perhaps not only his most famous, but also the most well-known of all the teachings—and I’ve seen it (often without due credit) everywhere from billboards to potato chip commercials. “If not now, when?” Later, obviously, since I’ll talk about each line in turn, as I have with most of the teachings before, and likely will for most teachings hence forth.

The first line here—“If I am not for me, who will be?”—seems as successful a lesson in selfishness as we can muster with such poignant elegance. The Hebrew itself is a hundredfold more stunning, however, in its simplicity and its lyrical quality: “Eem ain ani lee, mi lee?”

But certainly, the same man who taught us to be disciples of Aaron, who said not to seek fame but to study throughout life, could not be telling us to be selfish, could he?

There’s an interesting note to the numbering system of Hebrew. Similar to Roman numerals, in Hebrew letters have numerical value—and fourteen is no different, comprising the letters yud (ten) and daled (four). What makes me mention this, however, is that these same two letters also form the word yad, which means hand. And in any talk of selfishness, how could we ignore the fact that the hands of those who are selfish work only for their own good?

Our hands, however small, are ours. They cannot be taken away or exchanged for anything of greater value should we grow tired of them. They can do only two things: Do work for ourselves and do work for others. However, if all that we do is for others, we give away our hands. How then can we act for ourselves? How can we sustain ourselves or even live if we give our hands away? This lesson is not one in selfishness, but in selflessness: If you do not take care of yourself, you cannot take care of anyone else. If you’re ill, you must let yourself heal lest you pass it onto others and do more harm in helping them than in helping yourself.

This serves a suitable segue to the second statement, too: “If I am for myself alone, what am I?” As if reminding us that doing too much for ourselves leads to becoming selfish and self-centered, Hillel asks us what too much selfishness makes us. Some might say lazy or inconsiderate, others might say powerful and wealthy (and indeed, in today’s world, selfishness can manifest itself in multiple outcomes), but I think what Hillel truly had in mind was not what we are in terms of our possessions, but in terms of our identities.

There’s a lovely song by Ingrid Michaelson called “Are We There Yet” in which she sings, most beautifully as in all of her songs, “They say you’re really not somebody / Until somebody else loves you / Well, I am waiting to make somebody / Somebody soon.” I don’t believe any words I write could say it better than that, that it is not our own selves that make us who we are, but the connections we make and the people we love and who love us in return that define us.

And if we are for ourselves alone, what are we? We are alone.

And loneliness is paramount to nothingness, and nothingness to malady, and from there, the world itself could fall away one piece at a time and do us no better than we’ve already done to ourselves. Living is not living unless you’re living with others. Brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, teachers—people we merely pass in the streets even. Just as we cannot live by living for others alone, we cannot live by living only with and for ourselves.

So if not now, when? How do we move so swiftly from community to time? From self and society to seconds? It’s one final warning, I believe, an admonition to join the two teachings we’ve already addressed: In one, to live for ourselves. In another, to live for others.

When shall we do all of this? When should we follow one and when should we follow the other?

The answers is not a question, when, but a statement: Now. It’s a balance, and should be, to be maintained or at least striven for during every moment of our lives. If we’re being selfish and self-centered, a reminder to do for others now. If we’re giving so much of ourselves to others that we’re forgetting to sustain ourselves, to take time now to do so. And simply not to wait: Not to wait when we want something, but to take action now to get it. To send in that extra job application. To send in that story query. To sign up for that continuing education course. All of these opportunities abound—and we shoot them down with excuses: I have this to do, I have that to do, for me, for him, for her, for anyone.

But I ask you this, just as Hillel asks each of us, if not now, when?

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