Pirke Avot 1:14--“Hillel used to say, if I am not for myself who is for me, if I am only for myself what am I, and if not now, when.”
April 28, 2017
2 Iyar 5777
Shabbat Tazria/Metzora Lev: 12:1-15:33
Hillel’s saying at the top of the page is one of the most well-known of all the verses in Pirke Avot. In fact, this verse has gained universal acclaim outside the Jewish world as well. Jewish composers have written music to go with these words—Im ein ani li mi li—and “if not now when” is a foundational quote on which rests the importance of our participation in social justice.
One rabbi wrote the following about this verse, “Occasionally, we come to a mishna which says it all, in which our Sages, in a few short words, sum up what life is all about. This is one such mishna. The words of the Sages are always wise, relevant and eternal. Without exception they contain messages which, if we study carefully and take to heart, will instill new meaning in our lives. This mishna, however, is “it”. It does not require advanced and in-depth analysis to uncover its hidden meaning. It tells us outright what life is all about. We must merely hear its message, and it will — if we only allow it — change our lives.” How true are these words.
Each human being is important in this world. Gender, color, orientation, religion, politics, beliefs are what make us unique, but that uniqueness doesn’t make one person better than another. We need to take care of ourselves and recognize there is no other me, but me. At the same time, it isn’t just about me. We live in a world of billions of people. We are interdependent on each other for our survival. All of us must participate in this ongoing experiment we call humanity. As compared to the age of earth, we are just a mere blip. As compared to the age of the universe, we are even less than that. At the same time, for whatever reason, we have the ability to think, create, innovate, develop, and experiment unlike any other creature that has lived on this planet. Humanity is woven together in a great tapestry of individual threads. Each thread by itself is unique, but together it creates something awesome. So yes, I am for myself, but I am not only for myself because what I am is nothing without all of the others.
With the knowledge of who I am and that I am part of a family, a community, a country, a world, what is my role in this world? Am I going to just sit back as an observer or will I act now to make this world a better place. Despite our interconnectedness and our interdependence on each other there is brokenness all around. We live on a planet that produces enough food to feed all, but people are hungry. There are enough resources for everyone to have a decent place to live, but people are homeless. Our prophets told us to take care of the stranger, the orphan and the widow in our midst, but we often only think about ourselves. “If not now, when?” When will we realize that we are killing the world on which we live? When will we realize that worshipping in a manner different than your neighbor is okay and not a reason for war? When will we realize that we need to “beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks and not make war anymore.” If we don’t do this now, right now, when will we? When will we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and try to lift the poor out of poverty—“If I am only for myself, what am I, if not now, when?”
No one knows how Hillel came to write these three phrases and make them one verse, but he has left us gold to mine in understanding them. I need to take care of me, but I am not free from working with you and together we must do what we can do now. This is as true today as it was yesterday and it was in the time of Hillel 2,000 years ago. Judaism believes that each of us must find a way to leave the world a better place than when we came into it. If we do this. If we all do this, then maybe, just maybe, we will find ourselves a little closer to fulling that dream of peace and harmony.
When you light your Shabbat candles this evening, light one for Hillel who left us in his simplicity one of the greatest sayings ever written. Light the other candle to remind us that if we don’t act now to make the world whole, when do you think it will happen.
Rabbi Jon Adland