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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick


With this week's commentary, I want to turn our attention to another of the new posters on our lobby wall. This one reads, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

You are undoubtedly familiar with the sentiment. Our version is a sort of half-paraphrase, half-quote from Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who lived during the first century B.C.E. We know it from the Mishnah's Pirkei Avot, usually translated as Chapters of the Father. It is one of the most ancient collections of rabbinical lore and wisdom.

What Rabbi Hillel really said was, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?"

It's not uncommon for Hillel's wisdom to be partially or wrongly quoted by a really wide number of people, Jews and non-Jews alike. (I'll leave it to you to decide what we've done to it.) A few years ago Ivanka Trump tweeted out a version that said, "If not me, who? If not now, when?" Ivanka may be a member of the tribe (i.e., Jewish) but she did Rabbi Hillel wrong when she attributed it to Emma Watson. (Who actually did say it in a U.N. speech.) I recently discovered that the exact version on our poster appeared in the 2012 Republican National Committee platform, attributed to Ronald Reagan. There is, however, no evidence that the Gipper ever said it.

The reason people like this quote is because it speaks to them in different ways.

The final words—the part that, it seems, is never misquoted—suggest the urgency of getting things done. No matter the point one is trying to make, there is power behind Hillel's pithy reminder that for many things in life there really is no time like the present. The Hebrew is poetic. If you've been to Spinoza or a Friday night service recently, you've probably sung along with the words, "V'im lo achshav eimatai" in the famous tune by legendary Jewish composer Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory.

It's the first part that usually gets paraphrased. Hillel's original questions, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?" pose the classical dilemma of balancing selflessness and self-interest. For some Jews, they also suggest a conundrum presented by modernity, the question of how to weigh Jewish particularism against universalism. Humanistic Judaism tends to lean toward the universalistic, but reality often draws us back into a more particularistic—even parochial—stance.

Whatever the many levels of meaning that we might find in this quote, the emphasis on human empowerment that tempts us to paraphrase the first question really speaks to our humanism. It reminds us that whatever it is that needs doing, whether for ourselves or for others, only we humans can get the job done.

On our poster, the answer to the first question, "If not us, who?" should be very clear. There is only us.

As for the second question, "If not now, when?" Well, it really does answer itself, doesn't it?


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