This past Thursday I was talking with someone and he repeated the well known quote of Rabbi Hillel,
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, when?”
For the past few days this quote has been floating around in my head like wax in a lava lamp. What does this mean to me? Of course I have to in part come back to “The Dreaded Question” and what is my role in this world?
As a woman I have to thank Rabbi Hillel as the first question in the quote seems to tell us that we do not always have to be selfless. This is a huge issue for women. As nurturers we are always thinking of everyone else. As an example I think of something as simple as grocery shopping, which I do a lot. I often shop without a list. As I wander the aisles I concentrate on all of the members of my family and what their particular likes and dislikes are. With the keen knowledge that you cannot make everyone happy all of the time I try to balance our meals so that everyone gets something they like a few times a week. Pathetic as it is, I have only in the past few months started including myself in this thought process. It’s O.K. sometimes if my kids are forced to eat a little of a vegetable that they hate because I love it, or if for that one meal they skip my prepared vegetable and grab a few baby carrots from the fridge. I have also made the huge leap of not volunteering in my daughter’s school this year because after 11 years of doing it, I just don’t want to do it this year. Furthermore, I refuse to feel guilty about it.
This brings me to the second question. The balance. Now that I have become less selfless have I also become completely selfish? Of course not. I am still fully invested in my immediate and in my extended families. I continue to try to be a good friend to our friends. I am involved with the parent council at my son’s high school.
Last of all we are left with the question of, “When?”. My community involvement could be greater and there were times when it was greater. Right now I’m in a bit of a slump and I need to discover where I will feel the most useful. So, it seems to me that I am falling a bit short on the, When. I can hear the urgency of it in Rabbi Hillel’s question/statement but I know that I need a little more time to figure out how I will fulfill this duty in my life. I’m not being hard on myself, this is a need that I have. I’m just not sure what to do with it.
These thoughts are tied to an article that I read by Rabbi Marc Gellman that also resonates with me. The topic was happiness. Particularly wishing happy lives on our children. He made the very salient point that happiness is not enough, there have been many evil men throughout history who have been very happy committing great atrocities. We need to wish for meaningful lives for our children. Really, the more you think about it the more beautiful it becomes. Doesn’t happiness come from doing meaningful things (and from chocolate)?
So in the spirit of Rabbi Hillel and of Rabbi Gellman I will work towards a life in which my actions are thoughtful and meaningful, in which I do not neglect myself and in which I feel as though I am a fully committed and participatory member of society.