Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for April 26th, 2009|Daily archive page

If I am Not For Myself…

In Uncategorized on April 26, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Hillel’s famous statement “If I am not for Myself who will be for me, and when I am for myself what am I” instead of “When I am for myself alone what am I” is the translation of choice for all medieval commentators as well as late medieval commentators.

I did find a Sefat Emet which said that advocating for yourself meant getting yourself integrated, and once that was achieved one should use it to connect with knesset yisrael (the community of Israel) which is close to the way we understand it today.

Nearly everyone else sees it as talking about an individual’s spiritual purpose which is to serve God. With the modern era, and probably with the growth of Prophetic Judaism, a Judaism that emphasized social justice, this became the interpretation of choice.

So far I have checked about fifteen sources and except for the Sefat Emet a late 19th early 20th century Hasidic master, I haven’t come up with any other who favors the popular translation. The reason for this is simple. The words don’t seem to mean this, many of us just wanted them to. Even the Sefat Emet understands Hillel as saying the purpose of integrating ones self is to connect with something greater. For him, something greater is the community of Israel.

I think both meanings have much to offer. The question of what it means to advocate for ones self is a profound one, but it remains an open question. The problem with the popular reading is the final sentence: If not now, when? It makes much more sense to read this as enjoining one to get his act together now, so that he can rise to his greater and ultimate purpose. In the popular reading it’s just hanging out there like a non sequitor that begs a creative connection. The simpler reading is usually the more correct one, even if it isn’t the most compelling for most people.