Sunday, January 15, 2023

Avot 1:14 Self, Others, and the Fierce Urgency of Now

Avot 1:14Hillel would say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?

This is undoubtedly the best-known passage in Avot, and one of the most cited quotes from the entire Jewish tradition.  Hillel’s ancient wisdom has been employed as the title of numerous books and movies, incorporated into several song lyrics, and even boldly emblazoned on the walls of a leading national chain of fitness centers.  And as catchy as it is in English, it’s even more memorable in Hebrew, where it rhymes.

The opening line reminds us of the importance of self-care and determination.  As individuals, and as part of the Jewish people, we can and should advocate for our own legitimate interests.  Self-abnegation and mortification serve no one, only rendering us impotent in a world that cries out for all hands on deck.

A key to understanding the second line is to note the shift in pronouns.  We begin with “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”  but continue “If I am only for myself, what am I?”  If our locus of concern ends with ourselves, Avot implies, we become less than fully human.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead offered a powerful illustration of this truth.  She asked her students, “What is the oldest evidence of human civilization?”  They responded with the expected answers: a clay pot, iron tools, the domestication of plants and animals.  

“No,” Mead replied, “those are all early indicators but here is what I believe to be the first and most important sign of civilization”—as she held up a human femur and pointed to a thickened area where the bone had been fractured and then solidly healed.  She continued: “In nature, crippling wounds are fatal, because those who suffer them are left for dead.  But this healed bone shows that a group must have cared for the injured person—hunted on their behalf, brought them food, provided shelter and active concern for their welfare—making significant personal sacrifices to save the lives of a friend or family member.  That is the beginning of true human society.”

If we are only for ourselves, what are we?

The final line--If not now, when?--speaks to what Dr. King eloquently called “the fierce urgency of now.”  In a world rife with cruelty, division and deep injustice, we are all called to do our part.  Let’s find strength and solace in the knowledge that we are in it together.

On that note, I leave you with a link to a new song by the wonderful singer-songwriter Iris DeMent called “Workin’ On a World.”  It’s powerful medicine for apathy, offering, in the words of music critic Ann Powers, “a hallelujah for the good done by those who lay the path toward good even if they may not walk its full length.”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post, and song is perfect. Annabelle