Parashat Bereshit / פרשת בראשית

Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 5:4 tells us that Abraham was tested with “ten trials, and he withstood them all — to show the degree of our forefather Abraham’s love for God.” Each trial was given to him in order to show how much God loved him. At first glance, this seems strange. This is how you show you love someone?

First, you have him thrown into a furnace. Then, you tell him to pack his bags and move to a foreign country. When he obeys, you bring a famine to this country. And then, when he travels to find food, you have the ruler of the next place abduct his wife. Abraham gets her back and returns to his ordained place of residence, only to find that his nephew has been kidnapped by four powerful kings.

He manages to release him and is then commanded to kill his only son. Upon his return, having overcome the greatest challenge of his life, he finds that his wife died from shock and he is forced to pay an exorbitant sum for an inferior burial plot in a land that God has already promised him as an inheritance. And all of this shows God’s love for Abraham?!

This is precisely God’s love. Because through these challenges, Abraham was able to come closer to God. He fulfilled his potential and became the great human being we know of, founder of the nation that has taught monotheism to the world. The pain was relatively short-lived. The results were eternal. Abraham sits in his place in eternity, not in spite of his hardships, but because of them. His pain is gone. His greatness remains forever.

Our lesson: Know that pain is transient and difficulties in life are our opportunities for spiritual growth, to develop our character, perfect our behavior.

Rabbi Hillel. Hillel lived from roughly 60 BCE to 10 CE, during the reign of King Herod, if that gives you any grounding and appreciation for how ancient this art is. Hillel was the president of the Sanhedrin (the supreme Jewish court) and is widely believed to be the greatest scholar in all of Jewish history. Of all his, wise and poignant sayings captured in the Pirkei Avot – a compendium of rabbinic quotes that literally translates to ‘sayings of our fathers’ – perhaps this is the most widely recognized:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And when I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?

Believe it or not, this story of self, us and now is based on this ancient pairing of ponderings. At first glance, each one of these questions is a self-evident imperative. They build upon one another in such a poetic way that it only amplifies their profound simplicity. But are they really that simple? Sure, they can be; and yet, in typical Jewish tradition, nothing ever is.

The first of Hillel’s statements is “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” is perhaps the most overlooked of the three segments. Because the full quote builds upon itself, with the third question seemingly as the pinnacle, it is easy to overlook the base of this pyramid. Or, perhaps, we glaze over this line because the notion of standing up for ourselves is already pretty self-evident. By contrast, Hillel – and the subsequent Jewish sages who sought to unpack his quote see this first statement actually like the most complex and perhaps the most important.

Rashi, who was a literalist type Rabbi and famous sage in Medieval France, deconstructs Hillel’s quote by telling us that this first question has to do with the performance of mitzvot. Mitzvot are the 613 commandments found in the Torah – everything from observing Shabbat and keeping the rules of Kosher to not cross-breeding different brands of cattle and ensuring that all sacrifices made at the holy temple be salted. Rashi taught that it was the fulfillment of these mitzvot by which God judges each of us when we die and therefore if I personally do not uphold my obligation to perform mitzvot in service of God, there is literally no one else who will be able to fulfill the commandments that are mine to do. From this, we learn that we must first and foremost be for ourselves if we are to be scribed “into the book of life.”

Rabbi Ovadya de Bertinoro provides a slightly different interpretation, answering Hillel’s question with a new question: “If I do not acquire for myself a noble character who will do it for me?” Bertinoro was a 15th-century Italian scholar and for him, Hillel’s quote reflected both the practical and the spiritual: only I am responsible for myself and for my own spiritual growth and the good deeds I do for there is no external trigger to rouse me to this higher, nobler purpose.

I would argue that Bertinoro’s assessment most closely mirrors the purpose of gathering for social justice. In gathering we acquire new skills, refine our purpose and sense of self, and improve our character not just so that we can be better leaders but because as Hillel, Rashi and Bertinoro emphatically state: it is legitimate to pursue our own interests, to fulfill our own spiritual needs and to first and foremost become the best person we each can be. It is by improving ourselves – our characters and our souls – and through the fulfillment of the religious practices that give meaning to our lives that we learn how to be for ourselves. Without this deeper sense of self-importance and self-worth, Hillel’s imperative, “I am not for myself who will be for me,” is just hollow, pretty prose.

It is only through self-love and self-respect that we are able to be in a relationship with one another – for loving your neighbor as yourself is predicated on the fact that we must first love ourselves, our whole selves. Hillel orders his quote as he does not because service to others is a more worthy pursuit but rather to remind us that the work of caring for our neighbor – this social responsibility and relationship to a community – is the natural outgrowth of self-awareness and acceptance.

For Rashi, again, ever concerned with the fulfillment of mitzvot, “When I am only for myself, what am I,” is a reminder that a strictly insular focus shuts out God from our lives and prevents us from fulfilling the relational commandments, which are, after all, the bulk of the commandments. How we treat the day laborer matters; how we treat the orphan and widow matters; how we treat the stranger matters! How we are in relation to one another matters to God and to society. As another famous Jew once preached, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, otherwise known as Maimonides, a 12th-century philosopher, doctor and Jewish sage from Spain, has a slightly different and more cryptic take than Rashi (or Jesus). His commentary and I’m paraphrasing, is:

Only I have the power to control or choose the good deeds I perform, forcing me to ask the question in every scenario, “what am I?” Since I can never reach a god-like perfection – I can only strive to always be virtuous – I must therefore constantly be engaged in this spiritual discipline.

Maimonides, in his psycho-analytic ways, acknowledges here that we must choose for ourselves the good deeds or mitzvot we will perform for not only is human nature limited in its generosity, but it is physically impossible for one person alone to right every wrong in every situation. Nevertheless, we are responsible for our choices and character. Accordingly, Maimonides encourages us to always strive toward virtuous acts, to be the best neighbor and disciple and ally we can be.

Most of my activist life to date has been spent, seemingly, in service to others, perhaps because it is easier to focus on the plight of others rather than doing that harder work of self-care and self- improvement.

It challenges me to ask “what am I” if stand idly by while the people I love are treated as ‘less than’ by society? What am I if I do not stand with Kelli in her outrage at the street minister and the thousands of other protesters who every single day shame and judge young women seeking their reproductive and constitutional rights? What am I if I close my heart to the loss of generations of Puerto Rican children in Mya’s family. What am I if turn a blind eye to the already deafening silence surrounding sexuality education that, having been withheld, has shamed and damaged so, so, many.

Rashi, Maimonides, and Bertinoro all actually have roughly the same analysis on this portion of Hillel’s quote. Rashi emphatically states that it is in the here and now – this world, this life – where mitzvot must be performed. For Maimonides and Bertinoro, they believed that if the habit of pursuing noble characters is not acquired now, at a young age, it will be too hard to retrain ourselves when one becomes (quote) “old and senile and set in their ways.” All three of the sages capture the sense of urgency so often associated with the quote. They also remind us of the imperative to focus our efforts on youth who are most malleable and most in need of guidance on how to develop self-confident, highly motivated, noble characters. And there is truth in what these sages say – the habit of exercising one’s self-confidence and of fulfilling mitzvot is engrained into us early and without personal intervention, we do continue repeating bad habits. I still find myself waiting on that knight in shining armor to right ‘wrongs’ done to me far too often.

On the other hand, there are some modern interpretations that offer a slightly different take on the notion of when to act. There are times in a campaign, in a relationship, in life when acting immediately is actually not the most prudent decision. Sometimes in organizing, we should act immediately and there other times when our goals are better served by waiting for a later, more strategic or more opportune time. Knowing what is urgent, what can wait and what will best serve our long-term purposes is part of being a strategic organizer. Understanding both meanings of this portion of Hillel’s quote on timing will help us all be better prepared for the challenges ahead.

Having a deeper understanding of these ancient assessments on self-interest, self-importance and communal responsibility will equip us to be the best organizers, storytellers, and strategists we can be. Like I said before, nothing in Judaism is ever as simple or cut and dry as it might appear on the outside.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?