April 24, 2024
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הוּא (הִלֵּל) הָיָה אוֹמֵר… וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי (אבות א:יד):

Hillel closes his series of statements in the first perek with a short, four-word question: “Im lo achshav, eimatai?—If not now, when?” Now is the time for us to focus on important and meaningful tasks.

 

Early Enough

The mefarshim explain Hillel’s contrast between now and later in different ways. Rashi and the Bartenura focus on this world as opposed to Olam Haba (see Eruvin 22a which defines “hayom” as the time in this world to do mitzvot and “machar” as the next world). We should make sure to do teshuva and maasim tovim while we can—in this world (Avot 4:17). Once we are in the next world, it is too late for us to develop and earn reward (see also Avodah Zarah 3a).

The Rambam understands the “now” as referring to youth, as opposed to old age (see Kohelet 11:9–12:1). It is important to choose what is right at a time when we have the capacity and desire to potentially choose otherwise. Another reason to live properly in our youth is because of how hard it is to correct bad habits that have become part of our nature. Rabbeinu Yonah compares a young man to a sapling and an old man to a tree. A sapling can be shaped easily, while a mature tree is already firmly formed (Tehillim 144:12). We should pursue the correct path early on in life and develop ourselves properly. The Ri ben Shoshan adds that when we delay a deed—it becomes harder to do—as we become used to not doing the task. The Sifrei (Devarim 48) quotes a famous statement: “Im ta’azveni yom, yomayim a’azvecha—If we abandon doing the right thing for a day, it abandons us for two days,” becoming harder to do.

 

Right Away

Notwithstanding the importance of Rashi and the Rambam’s explanations, the mishna’s simple language seems to go a step further. The mishna implies that it is important to do things—not just in this world and while we are young—but also “achshav—now,” right away, as soon as possible (see Rashi who connects Hillel’s teaching to the principle of zerizim makdimim l’mitzvot and Pesachim 4a, Yoma 28b). Why is it important to do things right away?

 

Before It Is Too Late

Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Teshuvah 2:26) explains that delaying may cause us to miss the opportunity. We might forget to come back to the good deed or lose our will to fulfill it.

Additionally, the opportunity itself may pass us by. Shlomo Hamelech reminds us that “lo teida mah yeileid yom—you do not know what each day will bring.” (Mishlei 27:1) We, often, assume that tomorrow’s circumstances will be similar to today’s, but we are mistaken. The opportunity may be gone by tomorrow.

In fact, we ourselves may no longer be here in the future (Sefer Chareidim 70). This is how Rebbi Elazar explained his teaching that we should do teshuvah the day before we die (Avot 2:10). When his talmidim responded that we do not know when we will die, Rebbi Elazar answered that this is why we should do teshuva today and not wait until tomorrow (Shabbat 153a). We are mortals, who do not know how long we have in this world. We should, therefore, do important things right away (See Yalkut Yehudah, who explains that Hashem created us this way so that we don’t delay important things).

This idea fits nicely with the etymology of the word Hillel uses to refer to now—“achshav.” Many suggest that the word is an acronym for “atah, k’mo shehu—now, as things are (in the present).” The word itself emphasizes the fact that reality changes quickly and dramatically.

 

Maximizing the Moment

Rabbeinu Yonah adds that even if we, eventually, perform the task, delaying wastes the earlier moment. Life is all about taking advantage of our time and opportunities. Every moment is important. Even if we accomplish tomorrow, today has been lost and cannot be retrieved.

The Mishnah Berurah derives an important halacha from this idea. The Shulchan Aruch writes that one can write down a Torah thought on Chol Hamoed, if he is afraid that he might forget the idea (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 545). The Mishnah Berurah (ibid. 545:47) permits recording the idea, even if one is not afraid that he will forget it. One should not delay transcribing today’s thoughts until tomorrow, because tomorrow should be devoted to new ideas. Every day has a unique potential we are meant to maximize.

This idea applies even more significantly to teshuva. The Rashbatz explains that delaying teshuva not only wastes time and opportunities, but it also means that we live lives of sin longer than necessary. Doing teshuva in the future improves our subsequent lives, but it cannot rectify the lost years of the past.

 

No Time Like the Present

Hillel’s formulation of his teaching as a question—“If not now, when?”—makes an additional point. We sometimes justify delaying by hoping that things will be easier in the future, but this may not be the case. Hillel himself teaches in Avot’s next perek: “Don’t say, ‘When I am free, I will learn,’ as perhaps you will not become free,” (Avot 2:4). We have no reason to believe that things will become easier in the future. In fact—as we have seen—they may become even more difficult. “If not now, when”—there is no reason to assume that the future will be a better time. There is, therefore, no time like (or better than) the present.

When the yetzer hara sees that he cannot deter us from the proper course of action, he often reverts to a last “line of defense”—convincing us to delay. This delay often causes us to miss critical life opportunities. Additionally—even if we eventually accomplish the task—by delaying we have missed critical opportunities and often wasted a significant portion of our lives.

Let’s make sure to show our passion for what is right, by focusing on it right away. There is no time like the present.

*Summarized by Rafi Davis


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

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