By Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky | Series: | Level:

He (Hillel) would say: If I am not for myself (personally working to perfect myself) who will (perfect me)? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, then when?

A person should not consider himself as naturally being a person of merit and Torah. Rather, he must work to acquire these virtues. Therefore, we are taught “If I am not for myself, who will be,” meaning that if I don’t work at perfecting myself with the acquisition of Torah and Mitzvoth, no one else can do it for me; the Torah and Mitzvoth of others won’t give me perfection. Even if ones father learned Torah, that Torah is not transferable to his son through inheritance. This differs from monetary possessions. It is possible that one person can amass wealth and then present it to another person who did not work for it, or pass it on to his son as an inheritance. There are also material things that many people can acquire, even others were responsible for their production. (See Ta’anith 9a that rain and dew may fall in the merit of only one person, although many others will benefit from it. Also Ta’anith 24b and Berachoth 17b, teaching us that the entire world acquired its sustenance due to the need to provide food for Chaninah (ben Dosa), who then only ate a small amount, leaving the balance over for the rest of the world to eat.)

But it is not possible for a person to acquire virtues and perfection, to reach the World to Come, through the accomplishments of others. Every person must perfect himself; no one else can perfect him. So if I am not “for myself,” working to perfect myself, no else is able to.

But even “if I am for myself,” meaning that I do what is incumbent upon me, my accomplishments are still limited, due to my being flesh and blood, and I cannot fully accomplish what is truly fitting for the soul. (The soul is simply not able to be properly nourished from the actions of a physical body.)

These two lessons are embodied in the Midrash (Vayikrah Rabbah 4:2). On the verse (Koheleth 6:7) “All man’s toil is ‘lifihu’ (for himself; according to himself),” says Rav Shmuel bar Yitzchak: All (the perfection) that a man strives for and reaches in Torah and Mitzvoth is only (perfection) for himself, but not for his son or daughter. (He can’t bequeath his perfection to them.) On the verse (ibid) “And also the soul will not be satiated,” Rebbe Levi teaches that since the soul understands that it works for transcendent goals, for the nature of the soul is spiritual, (as opposed to working for some material accomplishments) she never becomes filled with Torah and good deeds. (There is always room for more.) An illustration of this would be the case of a peasant who married a princess. Whatever delicacies he will feed her, she can never be truly satisfied. It will never reach the level of pampering to which she is accustomed, for he is not royalty, and has no ability to provide her with what she deserves. So, too, the physical human being, who is rooted in the material world, is incapable of providing the soul with its true needs, for the soul is from the spiritual world (and can never be satiated with what is available in the material).

These Midrashim illustrate for us the two lessons discussed. Whatever perfection a person attains, it is exclusively his, and cannot be transferred to others, not even to his children. And even the perfection that the person attains for himself can never fill him to capacity. If a person eats a large amount of food, his stomach will certainly become full, to the point where no more can be consumed. But the soul of the person can never become full, no matter how much Torah and how many Mitzvoth it takes in. The soul is always looking to further fill an ongoing, insatiable need. The illustration brought compares the union of the soul to the body with a marriage of a princess with a peasant. The spiritual soul is “wedded” to the physical body, and even if the person a number of Mitzvoth and good deeds, which are the nourishment of the soul, the soul can never be fully satiated. For the soul emanates from the Divine, and physical actions in the material world have no ability to fully nourish a soul whose origins are from the spiritual world.

It is from this perspective that Hillel taught: If I do not perfect myself, perfection cannot come to me from anyone else. But whatever I do is limited by the physical nature of my existence, and my human actions can never be a COMPLETE nourishment for the elevated soul.

Hillel then concludes with a third lesson, for man who has a limited life span on this earth. “If not NOW — then when?” A person must awaken himself from his sluggish routine, and energize himself to do Mitzvoth and good deeds, since he can’t rely on anyone else to provide him with the needed accomplishments. And even if he does ALL that was incumbent upon him, he cannot fully provide the soul with all it needs, certainly during his very limited time on this earth.

All the lessons of Hillel (in these three Mishnayoth) flow from his special character of humility, and this is what links these lessons together.

{Our explanations of these Mishnayoth have a connection with Rosh HaShana. As we stand before G-d asking for life, good health, and material resources, our request is justified if we are committed to using them in His service, to attain higher levels of spiritual perfection. This commitment is the secret to how we can stand before G-d on the day of Judgment, and with no mention of repentance or confession for our sins, still have hope for being written for a good year. If we know how to use our resources to further man’s purpose on this earth, if we are devoted to using those resources to attain higher levels of spiritual perfection, then whatever sins we may have committed during the year do not stand in the way of G-d’s positive judgment of us, providing us with further resources. But this is built on our recognition of G-d as the real King of the Universe, and of ourselves as loyal members of “G-d’s team.” Our commitment to serve and give to others, as opposed to taking and consuming for ourselves, carries with it the potential for receiving more life and more resources with which to carry out G-d’s mission for us in this world. May we and all of Klal Yisrael merit a year of good health, true peace, and a speedy redemption.}

The class is taught by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Dean of Darche Noam Institutions, Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s and Midreshet Rachel for Women.