Hillel famously taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
While the gist of this teaching is fairly obvious—finding a balance between self-interest and communal responsibility—a subtle reading reveals much more. It is especially critical to note the shift in pronouns from the first question to the second. One would expect Hillel to have asked, “If I am only for myself, who am I?” But the who changes to what—suggesting that when we don’t tend to the needs of others we become something less than entirely human. Narcissism and greed distort our core humanity.
This is worth remembering in the aftermath of the 2016 legislative session. Once again, our representatives refused to extend health care to Idaho’s poorest citizens. Then, adding insult to injury, Governor Otter called a press conference to affirm that callous decision. Senator Jim Rice of Caldwell captured the prevailing ethos of the Idaho Republican party when he declared: “There is no right to health care. Not one of those who left the bloody tracks in the snow at Valley Forge did so for free health care.”
If I am only for myself, what am I? Apparently, for starters, a Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives.
In Jewish tradition, the saving of human life is known as pikuach nefesh. This obligation overrides virtually every other religious consideration. When a person is in danger, it is permissible to violate almost every commandment in the Torah to rescue them. We derive this imperative from the Torah’s teaching: “You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16). By this understanding, health care is absolutely a basic human right, and denying it to those in need is disgraceful. Idaho’s leaders are, indeed, standing idle while the most vulnerable of the citizens they serve are bleeding. When Idahoans die needlessly, due to lack of access to healthcare, as too many surely will in the coming year, let there be no doubt: the bloodguilt is on the heads of those who voted to deny them.
This is not just bad policy—it is moral bankruptcy.
Shame on our legislature and governor.
And shame on us, for continuing to elect them to high office.
We can do better.
And if not now, when?