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?