“He [Hillel] used to say, if I am not for me who is for me, if I am for myself what am I, and if not now when.”
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. Let us attempt to absorb its message.
(Well, this had better be good with an introduction like that…)
Hillel begins by saying no one other than myself can “be for me.” The idea, as many of the commentators (Maimonides, Rabbeinu Yonah) understand, is simple. The inspiration required to face life cannot come from without. No one else can turn us on, can give us the zeal to live up to life’s challenges. Our teachers, parents and rabbis may momentarily startle us into proper behavior — maybe a midterm will force us to study Torah — but it will be transient. The only way to truly accomplish in life and achieve our goals is to feel that sense of excitement and fulfillment about growing into life’s challenges. We must know what our goals are, and we must want to realize them.
A less-orthodox example comes to mind, but one which really says it exactly — so I can’t resist. (OK, this will date me pretty badly, but so be it.) Anyone who’s seen any of the many episodes of Rocky knows that endless training, advanced equipment, and demanding coaches will never make a great fighter. You have to want to win; otherwise you won’t stand a chance in the battle of life. We need to have the zeal, and it must come from within. (And you know, the theme is so true and powerful that you really can’t get tired of it. Why do you think so many sequels of Rocky came along (as well as so many other cheap imitations)?
And this is a message as relevant today as any time in Israel’s past. We, the Jews of the 21st Century, are heirs to a tradition well over 3300 years old, arguably the oldest of today’s great religions (most of which merely stemmed from and deviated from Judaism). It is a religion which has outlasted generation upon generation of “new and improved” philosophies, movements and fads. It has spoken to and continues to speak to Jews of all ages and societies. It has never become stale or dated, nor has it lost its relevancy to modern man.
I once heard R. Berel Wein observe that you can open King David’s Book of Psalms today, and read messages as relevant today as the day they were written: “These with chariots and these with horses, but we call out in the Name of G-d…” (20:8). Sure, the chariots and horses would be replaced with Kalashnikov rifles and Kassam rockets, but the message is as vital and meaningful as ever. While others speak “god” yet trust in violence and weapons, we employ weapons yet truly turn our eyes towards G-d for salvation.
R. Wein went on to compare this to prayers inserted by more free-thinking Jews in a one-time attempt to make the daily prayers more relevant. The “new and improved” prayers had something to do with the health of the local coal miners who lived in their time and place. It’s certainly commendable to pray for the health of others, but tinkering with the text of the prayer-book to make it more “relevant”? It might do just a smidgen of good for a few years, in some specialized setting. But if you’re looking for relevancy, stick to the original. Our Sages knew what they were doing; their words are not about to go out of style.
Anyway, we’re beginning to veer from our subject (for a change). The point I at first intended to make is that as authentic and time-tested Judaism is, we cannot just sit back and revel in our faith. We cannot just relax with the sense we’ve inherited it all, that we’re “there” already because our forefathers handed us so great and noble a tradition. We have the wisdom and heritage that we can grow into, but we have to grow into it ourselves. Our forefathers, even our parents, cannot hand fulfillment or religious commitment to us. Regardless of how great a scholar your father was — or how great a brain he genetically bestowed upon you — you have to put in the hours yourself if you want to become a scholar too. Every generation — every individual — has to discover him- or herself, and develop his or her own abilities and talents.
If there’s one thing we know (or should know) about Judaism is that it is not a religion which asks all of us to be the same person or act in the same manner. It allows each of us to grow into his or her mission, to discover himself and to develop his own talents and personality using the framework and tenets Judaism provides. We have the tools and the tradition; it is up to us to take that crucial first step.
The Talmud writes that the Jewish people are endowed with certain natural good traits, that we are merciful, bashful, and charitable (Yevamos 79a). As we know, Jews, estranged in practically every way from their heritage, have often been in the forefront in their philanthropy and support for social causes. R. Chaim Volozhiner, one of the leaders of Lithuanian Jewry in the early 19th Century, wrote (Ruach Chaim 5:4) that these and other such good qualities stem from our forefathers. Abraham was righteous to the degree that it was not a just matter of his own personal conviction. He molded his character anew — and he became the mold into which future generations would grow.
Our national character was fashioned by our forefathers, and their traits contributed to and enriched the spiritual gene pool from which all of us descend. Abraham embodied kindness, and the Jews are a kindly and sensitive people. He heeded G-d’s call to leave his past behind and travel to the Land of Israel, and likewise Jews have an innate, deep-seated yearning for the Holy Land. For generations Jews have been prepared to give their lives for their beliefs — just as Abraham allowed himself to be cast into fiery furnace for the love of G-d. Finally — and perhaps most importantly — Jews are driven by an insatiable quest for truth, one which does not let them rest — just as Abraham stood firm and unbending against everything his world and society stood for to discover G-d.
But again, we are only talking good traits. They give us a wonderful head start in life. But we must utilize them ourselves. And every generation must do this anew. The Talmud states that G-d bemoaned that even Moses lacked the level of pure — almost simplistic — faith of our forefathers (Sanhedrin 111a). You can inherit brains, wealth, social status, and to some extent natural inclinations from your ancestors. But you can never inherit faith. It won’t just rub off on you — no matter who your parents, teachers and neighbors are. The day comes in every man’s life in which he must wake up and make up his own mind.
(Tragically, we often find Jews who certainly look the part in terms of their dress and demeanor, but who in truth are utterly removed from religious behavior. (And the press is always gleefully there to report their misdeeds once they’re caught.) But we must keep in mind that the fact that a person grew up in a certain environment (and happens to have picked up the dress and many of the customs) is no guarantee that he truly discovered what life is all about. It does not just seep into us through osmosis, through no efforts of our own.)
Hillel continues, “if I am for myself, what am I.” Most of the commentators understand this to mean that even if I do inspire myself and accomplish, I am not wholly worthy. My accomplishments can always be greater. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, explains with a different twist: We need to focus and direct our energies towards ourselves. But we should not become exclusively engrossed in ourselves and our own development. Ultimately, our interests are in improving mankind. Each of us might focus primarily on him- or herself, but this is not to imply we are unconcerned with the rest of mankind — both Jew and Gentile. We must never lose site of Judaism’s cosmic mission to the world. Although we are for ourselves, that is only because we are truly for all mankind.
Finally, Hillel concludes, “if not now when.” We all have our inspired moments in life. We reach emotional highs, perhaps while hearing a stirring piece of music, during intense conversation, or in those special moments in which we sense Divine Providence has touched our lives. We cannot let those moments pass. On the one hand, of course they will: inspiration is by nature fleeting and transient. Yet we must hold onto them. How so? By concretizing the moment. Decide to become a better person. Make some small but tangible improvement in your life. Maybe decide to light candles Friday evening before sundown, to study Torah on a regular basis, to wear a pair of tzitzis daily, or even to talk more nicely to your kid sister (I saved the hardest one for last) ;-). Make it whatever you see as your personal challenge or next step at that moment in your life (as we discussed last week). But whatever it is, make sure it’s something real and concrete. Otherwise, yet another inspired moment of life will be lost forever. We cannot live with constant inspiration. But we can build upon those fleeting yet precious moments of true awareness. And ultimately, we will learn to be for ourselves — and so for all mankind. For if not now, when?
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.