If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

הוא היה אומר: אם אין אני לי, מי לי; וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני; ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי. פרק א, משנה יד  

I was recently reminded of this quote by Hillel, and I thought, “I’ve finally found my Jewish tattoo!”

This saying is everything that I believe in and live by. And I ran into an interesting problem when I tried to translate it into English: it took me an hour! During that time I discovered that what I understand the quote to mean is not exactly what others understand it to mean. If you can read and understand Hebrew, then you will find your own interpretation of its meaning. In this post I will discuss my interpretation.

The quote is most often translated to: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

I finally settled on: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?”

If I am not for myself who is for me? אם אין אני לי, מי לי

3 conclusions: I have the right to advocate for myself. Everyone should exercise this right because the only person you can trust is yourself. If even I won’t advocate for myself, why should someone else?

But when I am for myself alone, what am I? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני

I decided that “but” was appropriate because I see this phrase as a cautionary tale against the implications of the first; their order was not arbitrary. The words I translated as “when” (“kshe”) and “myself alone” (“atsmi”) each connote two different things. I understand “when” to refer to both a specific circumstance and a general attitude.  “Myself alone:” One way you can be for yourself alone is if you never consider others in the decisions you make. Another way is if you are so introverted or self-reliant that you are missing out on the connection you could have with others. The “what am I” part acknowledges that humans are social animals, and that it is in the individual’s as well as the community’s interest for the individual to not be 100% selfish.

And if not now, when? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי

Yes. I am all about now. If you have a problem, fix it NOW, otherwise you just live with the problem for longer. There is hardly ever a good argument for procrastination. 

The key to a fulfilling life is living each day aspiring to your goals while being open to receiving.

Isn’t that a great tattoo?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

  1. Kara

    Funny reading this, I am thinking of having this phrase as a tattoo too – in the Hebrew. But I connect to the spiritual interpretation of it – if I am not myself = if I don’t self-actualize into a unique individual, then I’m just one of the sheeple. But if my self-actualization is one of bringing out selfish traits, not sharing my unique gifts, than what kind if douche am I? (Ok the Talmud may not have had sheeple and douches, but there’s wiggle room in translation.)

  2. Rich

    I’m thinking of having this done as a tattoo too, I’d be really interested in seeing it as I am struggling with design and location, but find the words are absolutely the type of life rules that I would like to be reminded of.

    if you’ve had these done, I’d be really grateful if you could send me a picture.

    Thanks so much,.

    • throwinginthetowel

      Hi Rich, no I haven’t gotten a tattoo of this. If you’re looking for the Hebrew, I’m sure you could easily find it in a google search!

  3. I have just found the existence of this quote and in researching it further came across your blog.

    I didn’t realise how much it applies to me right now until reading your interpretation of it.

    I’ve become so insular an isolated as a means of coping but your blog has me thinking “is this the wisest way to live?” Its safe but certainly not brave.

    Thanks for posting your thoughts

    TramaDoll x

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