הוּא (הלל) הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. (אבות א:יד)
After emphasizing the importance of self-responsibility by stating that “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” Hillel immediately presents the flip side by adding, “When I am for myself (only), what am I?”1
Hillel’s statement can be understood on multiple levels.
Our Interaction With Others
Rav Chaim Volozhin2 understood Hillel’s statement as reminding us of our dependence on others. Though responsible for and able to accomplish much ourselves, we need others to help us maximize our potential. Rav Chaim focuses on our needing Hashem’s help in everything we do. In addition to Hashem’s help, we also need that of those around us.
The Midrash Shmuel understands that Hillel encourages us to think beyond ourselves. Our responsibility for ourselves should not cause us to think that we should care only about ourselves. If our lives are focused only on ourselves, “what are we?” A person whose life begins and ends with himself is of little significance.
Hillel’s language (“what am I”) hints to a deeper, existential component. Rav Shimon Shkop (the great pre-World War II talmudic scholar) understands Hillel as addressing the existential plane.3 Naturally, people view their existence as limited to themselves. Rav Shimon describes this perspective as crude and explains that more refined people see their existence as inclusive of others and, in fact, all of Hashem’s creations.4
People often see their care for others as a value that conflicts (or at least competes) with care for themselves. Rav Shimon explains that, in truth, they complement each other.
The Baal HaTanya5 uses a similar idea to explain Hillel’s response to the convert who asked to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself; this is the whole Torah.”6 As important as this idea is, we still wonder how Hillel could present it as the entirety of the Torah?
The Baal HaTanya explains that the ability to care for others on the same level we care for ourselves hinges on focusing upon our spiritual, as opposed to physical, existence. On the physical level human beings are separate, independent entities. On the spiritual, soul level, though, we are all part of a larger whole. Because the Torah ultimately aims to focus us on the spiritual, caring about others as we do ourselves can be viewed as the core of the entire Torah.
The Baal HaTanya added that this existential perspective is the basis of all Jews seeing themselves as brothers. Rav Kook built off this idea in many letters he wrote encouraging competing Israeli political parties to remember their brotherly relationship with one another.7
The Sefat Emet brings the two sides of our mishnah together by summarizing that on the one hand, it is crucial that we appreciate that we are each unique, important and responsible for our own growth and success. On the other hand, we need to see ourselves as part of the broader picture of klal Yisrael and of Hashem’s full creation.
Written up by Yedidyah Rosenwasser
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.
1 Avot 1:14.
2 Ruach Chayim, Avot 1:14. See also Talmud Bavli, Nidah 70a.
3 Sha’arei Yosher, Introduction.
4 Rav Shimon describes two levels of existential inclusivity. All Jews should see their existence as inclusive of the entire Jewish people. The “complete” person sees their existence as inclusive of all of humanity.
We can use this idea to explain another statement of Hillel. The Gemara (Sukkah 53) tells us that, when at the Simchat Beit Hasho’eivah, Hillel would exclaim: “If I am here, everything is here.” What did he mean by that surprising statement? Along these lines, he may have been saying that because he saw himself as inextricably linked to all of Hashem’s creations, his presence anywhere meant that all of creation was there as well.
5 Sefer HaTanya, Chapter 32.
6 Shabbat 31a.
7 See, for example, Ma’amarei Hare’iya 1:76, and 2:365