If Not Now When

“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?”

Hillel the Elder

This quote comes from Rabbi Hillel or Hillel the Elder.

I first encountered this most famous saying in author Rebecca Goldstein‘s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, (Highly recommended) where one character first misquotes Rabbi Hillel, saying only the first line, before another character disappoints the other by speaking the whole truth.

Recently, I got to revisit the quote while reading Italian-Jewish author Primo Levi’s novel, Se Non Ora Quando or If Not Now When.  (Also highly recommended).  I don’t know how exactly it went in the Italian, but the Jewish partisan soldiers of Levi’s book have a different variation of Rabbi Hillel’s words:


Levi seems to have changed the quote drastically; the quote from the book is much more individualistic, holding onto the sentiment of the first line.  But in context, it is a group of soldiers singing together their troupe’s rallying song.  It is about igniting courage, strengthening bounds, and encouraging the fight; I think these words are very strong, and Rabbi Hillel is inspiring personal strength, but in the original they lend to a broader interpretation.

Much broader in fact.  This quote can be taken a variety of different ways – and if you were able to read the original Hebrew it was spoken in, I’m sure it would be much more nuanced than what I can present here.  But this is just where my thoughts went when I pondered these words.  Let’s break it down:

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?

This first line is very individualistic and encouraging, just like how Levi presents it.  It is a call to action by the speaker, and signals the start of a journey of self-discovery.  The misquoting character from Goldstein’s book however has to be a warning for us: she gleefully uses this quote as an open gate for selfishness and self-interest, but that is not the case.  People need to be the makers of their own destinies.  You have to live your own life, no one else can do it for you; no one can decide what you should do, where you should live, how you should act, and no one should be able to. You need to defend yourself against others’ tyranny so you may live as you choose.  The line as well makes me think of individuals who give and give and give so much of themselves away to others that there is nothing left – you have to take care of yourself too, as well as others.

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

And this is where the next line leads us.  Who are we as individuals without a relation to others?  Does not culture form our identity?  Does not family influence who we are?  For Rabbi Hillel, I think he first refers to the Jewish people and their identity as a group – which is hugely important.  Who can you be as a Jewish person without your people?  And therefore he is saying you must put your people first, for they are you.

But I think this line goes far beyond one ethnic group (and the Rabbi would agree).  I think we need to consider this line in our relationship with everyone around us: with our friends, our family, our neighbors, coworkers, familiar faces on the street, strangers near and far.  Who are we as human beings if we do not look out for one another?

And on a deeper mystical level, who is “I” and who is “me”?  Is me the individualistic ego?  The hungry id crying for satiation?  Is “I” me?  Or is I a greater I, the I which extends within and without everything?  On this deeper level “myself” and “yourself” are no different, they are the same.

BUT, if you want to take it only in the humanistic approach, go back to the fact that we are all human – who are we as human beings if we do not look out for one another? Or rather, who do we want to be as human beings.  Which leads us to the final line:

And if not now, when?”

This last line is startling – it awakens in the individual a call to action.  But it also unveils to us a mystery of life and the importance of living in the moment.  And I don’t mean some YOLO, ‘I do what I want‘, living in the moment shit.  As the first line indicates, it is important to lead your life in the direction you want it to go in, but it cannot be at the expense of others.  Because ultimately the others are you.  And when exactly are you supposed to start doing all this living, this caring for others if not now?

Truly living in the moment doesn’t mean just living for yourself – it means being aware of everyone and everything around you.  This is what enlightenment is; pure awareness; this is what love is; no separation.  Often I hear if not now when flitting through my mind on a normal day and it makes me stop and take notice of the people around, of my actions, and whether I have acted in self-interest that day or in the interests of others.  Or better yet, in the interests of all of us.

These are just my thoughts on this truly inspiring quote.  Let me know what you think about Rabbi Hillel’s words in the comments below.  And sorry for the large break in between updates – all will be explained in my next post.


2 thoughts on “If Not Now When

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