One of the most famous paradoxes in Judaism, which ties into this week’s Parshat Re’eh, is Hillel’s statement in the first chapter of Ethics of our Fathers:
“If I am not for myself then,
Who will be for me?”
Hillel clearly states that we must be autonomous, independent and not rely on others for our needs, but then dramatically shifts from the individual focusing on his or her own needs and states:
“And when I am for myself,
(Then) what am I?”
Hillel seems to belittle the person who is engaged in his or her own affairs; that one who is within the four cubits of his/her own concerns is almost inconsequential to the point of nothingness—“then what am I?”
These two statements are contradictory and seemingly impossible to resolve; many have even mistranslated the second part of Hillel’s statement to mean “And if I am only for myself,” to resolve the contradiction.
Trying to solve the paradox, people have suggested that being self-absorbed is a problem only when someone is exclusively engrossed with their own concerns.
Hillel, however, did not say if I am only for myself. Hillel clearly stated, when I am for myself, then what am I? The key to resolving the paradox can be found in the concluding phrase of Hillel in the same Mishna. It says if not now (achshav) then when. The phrase, “If not now, then when,” teaches us that the only way to reconcile Hillel’s paradox is to understand and focus on the word achshav—right now.
If we are in the moment—if we are truly present and in tune with achshav, with what is going on right now—then we will know which side of the paradox to focus on. When we see someone who is needy and suffering, it is not the time to engage in self-reflection and our own concerns. When our children need our attention, support and care, then we must put aside what we are doing, and focus on our children. Similarly when we are travelling and alone, G-d wants us to use that time to focus on ourselves; to learn, reflect and think about how to make our lives more whole and complete. “If not now, then when” solves Hillel’s paradox by telling us that there is no more important moment than the present—achshav.
As Henry David Thoreau said,
“You must live in the present,
launch yourself on every wave,
find your eternity in each moment.”
This lesson is especially important for our lives today because we live in the digital age, where our ability to focus, concentrate and to be in the present is compromised at every moment.
With our phones, computers and the burgeoning social media platforms and tools; the normal boundaries between the private and the public domains, between others and ourselves, are blurred. Almost every possible diversion known to mankind is at our fingertips, lest we be bored for even a second. According to research, the resulting bombardment of media and other distractions have diminished the average attention span to a mere eight seconds; we are being told that even a goldfish has a longer attention span than that. Hillel’s teaching is more relevant and important to heed than ever, because our fast paced, media-dense world makes it challenging to appreciate the now, and to be truly present with ourselves or others.
I remember visiting the Lubavitcher Rebbe z’tl and looking into his eyes. For that split second, there was nothing more important to him than me. Despite the thousands of people in line waiting to receive a blessing, despite all of the Rebbe’s responsibilities, he was so completely focused on achshav, on that moment and on me that nothing else seemed to matter.
It is therefore no surprise that the Rebbe said “This is the key to time management: to recognize the value of every single moment.”
This idea, of the importance of achshav, the present moment, is communicated in our Parsha, Parshat Re’eh. In the opening verse Moses states: “Behold I place before you today, a blessing and a curse.”
Rabbi Isaac Bakhshi noted, that in the Torah the words today (hayom) and blessing (beracha) are placed right next to each other. The juxtaposition of these words teaches us that there is no greater blessing than today; that the biggest blessing in life is the present or achshav.
As we start the new month of Elul in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, I pray we should take Hillel’s sage directive of the importance of achshav—the present—to heart. We should strive to resolve the paradox of focusing both on our needs and the needs of others, by living more intentionally in the moment.
In the merit of living better in the moment, of knowing when to focus on our needs and when to focus on others, Hashem should judge each of us and all of Klal Yisrael favorably, and may the upcoming New Year of 5776, be filled with many fully present moments that are healthy, sweet, successful and prosperous.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.