Pirkei Avos 1:14 says,
[Rabbi Hillel] used to say: If I am not for myself who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that selfishness is bad. Virtually any early childhood video from Sesame Street, to Teletubbies, or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood teaches sharing and consideration for others. On the flip side, however, one should not completely negate themselves either. Judaism commands that we give 10% of our income to tzedaka, but then Judaism puts a cap on that giving to 20% for this very reason. Obviously, there needs to be a balance. And so from understanding of this need we can look at what Rabbi Hillel is saying on a deeper level.
If I am not for myself…
The opening line of the mishneh isn’t exclusively speaking to the trait of selfishness. Rashi says it refers to the mitzvahs. “If I do not perform mitzvahs, who will?” Rambam relates it to the inner drive to grow. If I don’t want to learn and grow, can I rely on an external source for inspiration? And Rabbeinu Yonah says it is speaking about accountability. If I don’t keep myself honest, who is going to admonish me. But from a broader and more encompassing sense, all three interpretations are speaking about the personal responsibility.
The one gift that we must believe God has given us is the gift of free will. If we can’t accept that, the whole design of Judaism is flawed and that’s a different conversation. But if we do accept that we have free will, that means we have the power to decide who we will be in this life. Obviously I can’t choose to be anything (I’m never going to be an NBA All Star), but I can choose what type of person I want to be. Disciplined or lax, caring or callous, pursing achievement or pursing comfort. But no one is going to live my life and make those choices for me.
Unfortunately, many of us have a tendency to not take responsibility for what and who we have become. We may blame our parents, a bad relationship, or some obstacle as the reason of our short comings or inaction. And I don’t mean to undercut the effect of these influences, they can be profound and even debilitating. But regardless, that doesn’t free us from taking responsibility for rising above those circumstances and climbing towards our goals.
When we take responsibility for something, it is a recognition that X will not happen unless I do something about it. And in order to take responsibility, we do have to have our needs met. So to put yourself first for the sake of a responsibility is the point Rabbi Hillel is driving home.
But if I am only for myself, what am I?
So the character trait of selfishness is not a bad thing, in fact it is a necessity. However, if the character trait of selfishness crosses a line and becomes an identity of selfishness, we’re now talking about something different. If someone becomes so self centered that the needs of all other human beings are neglected what have they become? That’s the question Hillel asks.
A person can spend their life doing mitzvahs and keeping the strict rules of the Torah but completely miss the point. It is a profound disconnect that robs us of our humanity. If I become so self centered, all other human beings are negated, I cease to be a human being. And though this may seem like an extreme that is beyond any rational person, it is sad to say that it happens much more than we’d think. How often has work, the thing that is supposed to give you a means to your life, become the dominating force that stops you from connecting with friends and family?
If not now, when?
Procrastination is the killer of all accomplishments. But why has Rabbi Hillel chosen the end of this mishneh to remind us of this? It is because the earlier phrases are talking about character traits. We can always grow and change, but the older we get, the harder it gets to make those changes. And when we are talking about something as deeply set as a character trait, every day we wait to change is not only a missed day, but now more difficult day to start the change than the one before it.
So then Hillel asks, “when?” It’s great to make the decision to change. But to ensure that change takes place it is crucial that one sets a time dedicated to that change. We all have iCal and Google Calendar. And if not, get a regular calendar. Set down times that you are going to dedicate to what you want to change or accomplish, whether it is a physical action or just a meditation. You might call this “me time,” which is rather appropriate for the mishneh.
There is a teaching which says that we should recognize that the world was made for you. YOU, the person reading this. (Whether that’s the whole world or just the world you live in is also a separate discussion.) But just because it was made for you doesn’t mean you can treat the world as you feel like. It is an acknowledgement that you have a responsibility to the world. This encapsulates the very balance the mishneh is speaking about. Because it is only from the recognition that in order to take care of the world you must take care of yourself. That allows us to understand our responsibility to ourselves is a responsibility to the world. They are one in the same.
Special thanks to Rabbi Denbo. This was all pretty much straight from him. Except for the stuff I messed up.