CHAPTER 1 MISHNA 14 OUR ROLE IN LIFE. LIFE IN TRUE PERSPECTIVE
The teaching of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 1, Mishna 14, teaches, “He (Hillel) used to say, ‘If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
The great sage of 2000 years ago, Hillel, is the famous "adversary" to Shammai. Naturally the arguments between these two sages are purely for the sake of heaven. We can be certain that not only was there no enmity between the two, but they were in all probability the greatest of friends!
Hillel's way of thinking was always to go in accordance with mercy, to be filled with compassion and kindness, goodness and giving-in to his fellow man. He did all these things in strict accordance with the laws of Torah, and not in a way of his own personal biases.
Shammai on the other hand was on the side of judgement. Very particular to fulfil every detail of Torah exactly as it should be, it seemed like leniencies simply didn't exist. Hillel's opinion was favoured in almost every circumstance and is the practised law followed until today.
*His* approach was the way to go, since even the world itself was created on kindness (Psalms 89:3) "Olam Chessed Yibane." If we want to succeed in life, to get by with a smile on our faces, we have to mitigate the judgements with attributes and actions of kindness and goodness.
One cannot separate Hillel's statements, however, especially in this Mishna, as all are linked. We cannot assume one part of his statement without taking into account the rest of it, as all are connected.
As he says "If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am for myself, what am I, and if not now, when?" The latter part of his statement is perhaps the biggest clue to the former part. And once again, this too illustrates the total approach of Hillel towards the world and others. Giving, goodness and kindness are hidden within it, and yet when one looks a little deeper, one sees clearly how they are revealed.
Hillel highlights the importance of being oneself. Of having an "ego" of sorts. Of feeling confident enough about oneself, that one can achieve what one must, whether to oneself, to Hashem or to others. Yet at the same time, not becoming overly confident in "Kochi V'Otzem Yadi" - the strength and power of my own hands (Devarim 8:17) - he teaches the balance that the Rambam speaks of. If a person wants to achieve a true balance in things, he can do so by swinging from one side of things to the other. Thereafter, having seen the full spectrum of the issue at hand, he can move back into a balanced role.
So says Hillel - if I should ever become too filled with pride, indeed believing that I am the All-Powerful, that I achieve everything by myself, without any help (from Above), then what am I? This is not the role of a person. A Jew is filled with both an animal soul (and a body) and a spark of G-dliness from above (Tanya chapters 1 & 2). He is indeed both.
However, if he suddenly begins to feel that he is indeed in charge, he takes himself out of his role of being an ordinary human being made of both souls. He exits the norm and enters a realm of something not made for this world. What is he indeed? He is certainly no longer a human. He is not one who can interact with others, since he presumes himself to be of another world. He loses touch with others, being unable to identify and feel their pain. He becomes a "Mah" - a "what" - a being that can no longer be identified.
Hillel goes one step further on this very same topic. If not now when? Hillel believes in the mission of each person. Each of us is required to contribute to this world in a way that will benefit others, and in addition will fulfill Hashem's role of creating a physical world and bringing Hashem into it. An aspect of kindness towards his fellow man, and an aspect of kindness towards G-d Himself! But how is he to do it - what with having to deal with gaining the necessary ego to feel confident in himself, and in
addition, not becoming too arrogant to take himself out of the world. For this Hillel answers, “If not now, when?"
Nevertheless, even as I go about my task of working on myself, my Middot. Even as I work on achieving the correct harmony and balance in my life. A harmony of balance between my body and my soul. A harmony of balance between myself and others. A harmony and balance between myself and my Creator. Even as I work on all these things - sometimes finding myself torn apart - sometimes feeling like the animal side to me, and at other times feeling like an angel - even then I must still pursue my task. Now is the time. No matter where I find myself as I go about achieving balance - of bringing goodness to the world, to others, to Hashem, and to myself - even so, I will not wait until I have achieved the goal of balance. I will not wait until something happens to make me realise I can do it - that I can make a difference. I will do it now! Now is the time to achieve all these things.
When I'm low, I'll pull myself up to try and be a somebody. And when I'm on a high, I'll remember to get back to reality. I'll have two pockets – says Hillel. When I am on a low, I'll pull out the note in my one pocket. It reads "Why was man created after all the animals? To teach that the entire world was created for him." This will lift me up, and I will be a somebody! And when I'm high, I'll read the note in my other pocket, "Even the mosquito preceded you in creation" and get back to reality! I'll continually work on things. But still, nothing will hold me back from achieving the goal of everything - right now! My path is a path of action - says Hillel!
While continually working on myself, I will achieve all the goals I am required to do. Being Hillel - this means bringing further mercy, goodness and kindness into the world - ultimately making the world a fitting abode for the Shechinah - an abode for the indwelling Divine Presence of G-d in the lower worlds.