Im ein Ani li, Mi Li (If I am not for myself who will be for me?)
by Jacques Abourbih
Hillel is widely recognized as one of the wisest most humble person who ever lived. His most famous aphorism recorded in the Pirke Avot says: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
I think part of the difficulties with this statement is the universal perception of Hillel as Mr. Nice guy. One cannot imagine that Hillel, the paradigm of humility could be so self centered as the first part of that aphorism implies, much less advocating for himself. People are quick to point out that the second part counter-balances the first: “And if I am only for myself who am I?” There. You see? Here is the old Hillel that we know and love.
Not so. The second proposition does not negate the first. Nor Hillel’s questions a mere exercise in introspective musing on one’s spiritual purpose. The Mishna advocates social justice for both the community and the individual. The last part of the aphorism sheds a significant dimension demanding ever vigilance that the rights of the self are not abused in favor of the collective or vice versa. It says: “If not now when?”
There is a powerful story in Martin Buber’s book “Tales of the Chassidic”.
A man once approached a Tzadic, a great chassidic master who askes him:
“Why did you come here?”
‘To find G-d.”
“Then you came for nothing. You wasted your time.”
“Why” demands the man
“God is everywhere.”
“Then, tell me, master, why should I have come?”
“To find yourself.”
Let’s dissect the first part of the aphorism. There are two expressions in Hebrew to describe the self that don’t have clear translations in English. The first one is Ani, roughly translated as “I”. It is the deepest self. It is our personalized facet of the Divine image. By contrast “Li” the second self roughly equivalent to “myself” originates from others, from society’s perception of the person – from that which is outside “Ani”.
It is easy to see how Ani and Li wrestle with each other creating an identity crisis. The ultimate victory of this struggle is Abraham in Genesis where g-d tells him: “לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ” “Go, get yourself out from your country, your birthplace, your father’s house”.
The alternate reading of לֶךְ-לְךָ is “Go to yourself” to find yourself. The idea is that only by breaking away from the external forces that place demands on you can you hope to come to realizing your true values and your priorities in your life.
Clearly Abraham was torn by demands made upon him by his ties to his community, his village of birth, to his responsibilities in Haran. It is only when he “went to himself” searching “Ani” for answers that he understood his destiny.