Looking Out for Number One

“Loneliness in the night” Valery Rybakow, 2015

Looking Out for Number One

Quoted in full, Rabbi Hillel’s famous saying goes like this:

If I am not for myself, who will be?

And if I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

Though Hillel, proper sage of antiquity that he is, fills out his first question with the next two – more inclusive, ethical and broad-brush questions — his first question is often taken to stand alone. And it’s heard this way:

if I don’t look out for number one,

nobody else will.

Reading it like that, the subliminal message would be:

nobody cares,

so I better try to,

or at least put up a good show of trying.

Having moved to Bucks County and joined a temple – two firsts in my big-city, disaffiliated life – I’ve also seen some congregants pass off the stage in single file. (I mean, I’ve seen some of our people die.)

One was a young woman who spent a full year actually converting to Judaism. For the conversion ceremony, she asked me to be a witness. As we drove to the mikvah (ritual bath – like the Christian, full-body baptism), I asked her why she was doing this. I’m aware that, in the world’s eyes, being Jewish is not a big honor. Why volunteer? Also, Judaism asks for a subtle kind of commitment. One is naturalized into a people and its sacred but rather terrible history. One takes on a difficult and grownup worldview. Did she know, had she any idea, what she was doing?

Rather to my surprise, she did. By the way she explained her decision, I stopped doubting her reasons or the purity of her purpose.

Within the year, she was dead. Of more “natural causes” than most people suffer from in several lifetimes. She’d kept herself alive by force of will, I guess. I was one of two friends who made the discovery. At her funeral, I thought my heart would break in two. Yet I seldom think of Dale now, and the other day a congregant said that he couldn’t recall her name.

Does anybody really care about anybody? Assuming the answer is

no, nada, not much,

isn’t the admonition to be “for oneself” really a reminder not to make the world’s indifference unanimous?

It recently occurred to me that, if I were to leave my temple, aside from some professions of fondness in the farewells, people would get over it very quickly and move on.

A congregant who’d attended our weekly study class for years died recently, after a sudden illness. A half hour was set aside for reminiscences. All favorable but … that’s that. We don’t observe a moment of silence every Saturday.

What does it mean, to be “for oneself”? Why is it presented by the celebrated rabbi of antiquity as a religious obligation, not just an eye for the main chance?


It’s my belief that the indifference is the feigned part of social life. Or the anaesthetic part, to dull the pain. The sharp, striking, unforgettable presence of each of us to each other is the reality.

Today I spoke with a friend of many years from the little town in Downeast Maine where my parents had a home and strong connection. I spent many summers in that town during their time and for some years beyond. The friend with whom I spoke today shared a concern about a mutual friend who has fallen seriously ill. We three used to ride together. Sunny days we never thought would end. We would like to be of some use in her situation now. Many obstacles and miles separate us, from her, from each other and from our hopes to offer alternative courses for going about the business of survival.

Of course, the way we think to help might, in the end, work no better than the way she follows now. But we don’t want to accept defeat. She’s our friend. We want to try to get through.

In turning from the distracting busyness of current life — the static, the information glut, the sense of rush — we were noticing how we actually feel. We care about her. Which means we were being “for ourselves.” In facing our real purposes, the steep obstacles, the reasons to try, we were also looking square on at the deepest, most central fact of life:


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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7 Responses to Looking Out for Number One

  1. Joel says:

    “Looking Out for Number One” seems to regard most friendships as transitory. We desire long lasting friendships, but such relationships are hard to find and maintain.
    Hillel’s second line is important; it directs us to think of others and not only of ourselves. True, we cannot be good friends or think or do well for others if we do not have a good self-image. And that, I think, is Hillel’s point; we should stick up for ourselves so that we are stronger to care for others who need support.
    Abigail relays various experiences about friends who have died or who are sick. Isn’t it a great and lasting tribute to lost friends, either because they have died or moved away, when our outlook on life has been changed as a result of knowing them? Sure, as time passes our memories of these departed friends gets fuzzy. But, we are all the result of the many interactions we have with other people, both good and bad. We are shaped by these experiences.
    I have had the pleasure and privilege of sharing many of the weekly study classes with Abigail. At these study sessions the agenda is for the rabbi to teach a short Torah portion, and then each participant reacts to the teaching and also to what other participants have said. Naturally, some discussions are more impactful than others. But sometimes, these sessions are truly brilliant, and when that happens, most of us leave still thinking and talking about the lesson. Some Torah verses are more impactful than others, of course, but usually what makes a particular session meaningful is what derives from the discussion. The cumulative effect for me is that life has more meaning and some of my decisions and actions have been positively colored by what I have learned.
    Readers of this column appreciate Abigail’s wide and deep knowledge in philosophy, culture, and history. The participants of this particular study group wait in anticipation for when it is Abigail’s turn to share her thoughts. It is a week-to-week ongoing conversation with a learned professor about a myriad of life’s questions. And, while Abigail is always erudite and informed, sometimes the wisdom in that room comes from others with other experiences. Sometimes the simplest question that a confused participant asks leads to the biggest a-ha moments. These lessons have had a cumulative positive impact on me, and I think these lessons are long lasting.
    What we take from a friendship also depends greatly upon what we put into it. Consider, for example, the friendship between long-time spouses. When tragedy occurs and one of the spouses is left surviving, it is likely that the survivor never stops thinking about their departed partner.
    Obviously, friendships range in depth and in duration. The real challenge is to make friendships meaningful during the time that we have with each acquaintance and experience. The way to measure a friendship that is long-distance or that has ended depends upon how that friendship has changed us or taught us.

  2. Heather says:

    Recommended read by a member of my Torah study group. This truly resonated with me; as most of you know I lost my best friend this year–shortly after losing my mother and right before losing a cousin. As a not-so-recovered shy person, a single woman, and someone with an extended family that is mostly dead or dispersed, I fight loneliness as a disease. Abigail, thank you for your perspective on caring for others, caring for oneself, and the power of friendship.
    (And RIP Dale–Abigail, I remember her.)

  3. Jerel says:

    As always thank you for sharing your blog. Your points are well-taken, but I would remiss to not let you know that I still think of Dale to this day. She was a beautiful person. She was at our home for Break Fast the day before she died, and brought my boys little toys. I also was just mentioning another beloved congregant, who the Adult Program was named for in his and his wife’s memory. Another fabulous person that brought such delight to everyone he met. We will all be forgotten over time, but we can only hope that our good nature and positive actions in our community will make a difference and will endure. For me, it is also what I can pass on to my children. Yes-maybe they’ll say “What was his/her name?” But, they will remember the good the person did while on this Earth.

    • Abigail says:

      I am grateful to you both, Jerel & Heather, for stepping in to remind me that we are, after all, a community — perhaps more than we know — and that the sweetness of Dale has not lost its savor in her physical absence.

  4. gailpedrick@comcast.net says:

    Dying to self…reaching out to help others…Mother Theresa…loving and helping others…..how many Frank Sinatras…I’ll do it my way….find it,,

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