Hillel says, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14
Hillel is widely recognized as one of the wisest people who ever lived. This Mishna is arguably his most famous aphorism. The first clause of the aphorism roughly translates: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"1
The phrase distinguishes between two selves - "I" (ani in Hebrew) and "me" (li). It implies that somehow we can have a self called "I" and a self-called "me."
The "I" self is the deepest self. It is our personalized facet of the Divine image. By contrast, the "me" is the persona we develop during life. Elements of the "me" originate from others, from society - from that which is outside "I."
The biblical paradigm for successfully wrestling with this identity crisis is Abraham.
"Go, get yourself [away] from your country, your birthplace, your father's house." (Genesis 12:1)
Literally translated, the words "Go, get yourself away" can be read: "Go to yourself!" The idea is that only by breaking away from the external forces that operate upon our "selves" can we hope to come to our true "selves," our destiny.
Abraham was told to break away from three levels of "non-self" forces:
- "Your country" - the nationalistic, political ideology.
- "Your birthplace" - the more local, communal, ethnic undertows.
- "Your father's house" - even the particular familial expectations and norms.
Abraham's future success began when he first broke away from those environmental forces.
Each of us has an authentic, unique self; an "I." Hillel teaches us that if we do not reveal that "I" - the part of my self that is unique - then who are we? What value is there to "me," the persona that operates in the world? It is just a shell, a conglomeration of societal elements originating in others.
A World of Others
The next clause in Hillel's aphorism reads: "But if I am only for myself, who am I?" Here the word for "I" is anochi. This is also the first word God used when He revealed Himself on Sinai.
If we do not reveal that "I" - the part of my self that is unique - then who are we?
"I am [Anochi] God your Creator who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Exodus, 20:2).
This is the revelation of God's innermost being, bursting out behind its barrier and gushing forth like a subterranean fountain.
Commentators have asked why God identified Himself as "merely" the God who took the Jews out of Egypt. True, the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Red Sea were unparalleled miracles. But can they compare to the act of creating the universe? Wouldn't it have been more impressive for God to identify Himself and the Creator of Heaven and Earth?
However, by describing Himself as the God who just took the Jews out of slavery, the Almighty is focusing on the key defining quality of His relationship to the Jewish people: He cares and is involved with others.
The God of the Torah is not the stoic Unmoved Mover of Greek philosophy. He is not the faceless, uncaring God of the Deist. He is intensely interested in human affairs. He came down into the Land of Egypt to free His people "from the house of bondage."
If we want to emulate God, we cannot stay within the isolated ego.
And that is implied by the word "anochi." Anochi is the proclamation of intimate nearness between the speaker and the listener.2 It is an "I" that encompasses "others," and is thereby infinitely more whole. If we want to emulate God, we cannot stay within the isolated ego. We must start with the self (ani), but then move out into the world of others. By so doing, we free them and ourselves from bondage and reveal a greater self (anochi). It is a self that is simultaneously a part of a greater whole.
There is a unique "I" in the universe and it has only been entrusted to one human being: you. If that unique "I" does not somehow find expression, then the world will never know it. A precious unique "I" has failed to be experienced. That is a tragedy.
However, once that "I" has discovered and learned to express its individuality, it needs to take the next step and bring it out into the world. Each of us has something unique to contribute and no one else can bring it into the world.
If Not Now, When?
The third clause of Hillel's aphorism reads: "If not now, when?" What does this somewhat enigmatic phrase have to do with the struggle of self?
The clause is describing an important step in bringing the process of self-actualization to fruition. It's saying: "Stop procrastinating! If not now, when? If you're not going to develop your self now - if you're not going to make that trip, take that course, meet that person, read that book - when will you? Get moving on it NOW!"
Sometimes the very thing that can give us the most satisfaction - the key unlocking the doorway to our selves - is the very thing we deny most. It is the door we most fear opening. So we keep the key far out of sight to prevent it from reminding us that there's even a door to be unlocked. We design our lives and busy ourselves from dawn to dusk with activities that rob us of the time to soberly take up the meaning of life and what we need to do to make it truly meaningful.
Even Moses, at the burning bush, when God told him He had chosen him to lead the Children of Israel out of bondage, said, "Who am I?" Even Moses didn't recognize the full extent of his own greatness and acknowledge his hero/redeemer self.
Sometimes we're the last to know how great we are.
Sometimes we're the last to know how great we are, and how much greater we can become. So we procrastinate - even for precisely that which we long for most. And there's nothing we long for more than the expression of our deepest self. That's why Hillel feels it vital to remind us that it's not enough to be aware of the need; we have to act on it. Continually. Relentlessly. Otherwise, what's life for? And if not now, when?
A Glowing Coal
Whether one is in the midst of developing one's basic "I" - his true inner self - or moving beyond that into development of one's "anochi" and sharing himself with others, each of us has a natural holiness. At our core is a sacred, transcendent self. The self glows like an eternal light.
Why then can we feel at times so unholy, so mundane, so dark?
Because we let it get bombarded with influences that heap layers upon layers of soot on our inner, glowing light. We're creatures open to inspiration. However, only one who nurtures the seed of inspiration succeeds in becoming an inspiration to others. A person feels a spark of holiness, has an inspiring experience, yearns momentarily for something more, but then does something unholy, or simply comes home and turns on the TV. Mindlessness becomes a way of life.
The soul - the sacred self - is the most precious organ. But it needs to be nurtured. It's like a piece of coal - do nothing and it's a cold, dark piece of rock; ignite and fan it, and it will glow. To glow is natural. Each of us has a natural beauty, a grandeur, and the absolute free will to experience a state of holiness. Our job is to keep our soul glowing. At the very least, we need to periodically extricate ourselves from negative influences to let it glow.
A man once approached one of the great Chassidic leaders, who in turn asked him, "For what did you come here?"
"To find God."
"Then you came for nothing. You're wasting your time."
"God is everywhere."
"Then, tell me, master, why should I have come?"
"To find yourself."
1 The words literally translate: "If there is no "I" (ani) to me (li), who is me?" Eam ain ani li, mee li.
2 Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary to Torah, Exodus 20:2.
This article was written with my father, Chaim Benyamin ben Esther, in mind. May he have a refuah shlaimah.