By Elisheva Maline
He [Hillel] used to say, "If I am not for me, who will be for me; and when I am only for myself, what am I; and if not now, when?
Hillel was a sage who lived in the twilight years of our second beit hamikdash (holy temple). He stated, "If I am not for me, then, who will be?" At first glance, one might say, "The first clause in Hillel's quote is an absurdity. Obviously no one can be there for any one." Essentially, man is stranded in his perception of the world. People are born alone, and unaccompanied, people pass away from this world alone as well. Now, although the first phrase in Hillel's quote rings true, one need not listen to it with a somber ear. Hillel wasn't trying to depress us; rather, he urges us to discover what matters to us without the burden of depending on others. If you are looking to get a good grade, raise a healthy, happy home, or even order a ticket to Venice, go right ahead and do it! Don't wait for the moment to strike or for words that inspire; just do it!
Avrahan Avinu (our fore father Abraham) believed in this pirkei avot. Ten generations after the flood and in the face of an entire world gone askew, a world which trumpeted its belief in polytheism, Avraham planted his feet and said, "There is only one G-d." The word Ivri (which means Hebrew) originated from a nickname Avraham's neighbors bequeathed him. Back then, Ivri meant 'other.' People saw Avraham as a weirdo who chose to live his life on the other side of a river, so to speak, the pagan religions on one end and his belief in monotheism by the opposite shore. He never stopped to ask people what they thought though. He went ahead and did what he thought was right.
Not only did our forefather not care about majority opinion, he sought to enlighten others with truth. Thus, he became the paradigm of giving, one of the corner stones our Jewish faith. When he would invite strangers into his tent, he'd offer various forms of nourishment: food, a place to rest and information on the giving ways of G-d. Generations later, Hillel summed up Avraham with the phrase, "If I am only for me, what am I?"
After reading the above paragraphs, it's clear that a change of pace is due. The only question is: how to proceed? We are being serviced by the examples of people who scoured mountains. It is easy to feel discouraged and, of course, behind discouragement pipes the little voice, "I will start living the life I want to live, tomorrow. Beware! Edward young said, "Procrastination is the thief of time." It is a digression from living." Take Hillel's first two phrases and use them as the inspiration.
Irving Bunim, the writer of a book called Ethics from Sinai throws in a verse from Leviticus on the third phrase, "If not now, when?" He said, "Before an aged one, rise" (Leviticus 19:32). This means, give honor to the elderly by standing up when they enter a room, get on the bus etc. One of the sages of yesteryear added, "Before you have aged, rise!"