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:
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: