When Bill moved in with me fourteen years ago, his possessions moved in too. He had less “stuff” than I did (having left much of it behind in the house now belonging to his second former wife). So it was eventually possible, after some “friendly” dispute, to make room somewhere or other for what he had brought with him, even if it didn’t exactly “go” with what was already there.

However, one of his pictures I never had doubts about.  I was given no formal religious education and don’t know exactly who Rabbi Hillel was. Moreover, I have no religious beliefs whatsoever.  But there was no question in my mind that the saying attributed to the Rabbi which Bill had framed would come with us from Cambridge to Princeton. In fact, it currently hangs just outside the room that serves as my office, where it reminds me of life’s imperatives and conundrums whenever I pass it on my way to and from the computer.

In case the words aren’t easy to read in the uploaded photo of the picture, here they are again, writ clear:

“Hillel said, ‘If I am not for myself, who is for me?

“If I am only for myself, what am I?

“If not now, when?”

Forthright, isn’t it?  You can’t really argue with any of it.  If you let yourself be put upon or walked on, you will be. But if you act only for yourself, if you’re a selfish shit — what kind of person are you?

“If not now, when?” may be easier to understand, if not always easy to put into practice, and has occasionally been helpful to a daydreamer like me. But the more you consider that those four words follow the two sentences preceding it, the less forthright and the more cryptic the whole thing becomes.  Do what now?  Take care of numero uno?  Give unto others? Suppose those two directives are in conflict. Then what?

I offer no suggestions as to what the good Rabbi may have meant, other than that what he meant can mean different things to different people at different times.  And probably has. Or different things to the same person at different times. Which is also probably true.

But it’s worth thinking about. Especially in connection with one’s own life.

What do you think?

16 thoughts on “WHO SAID LIFE WAS EASY?

  1. kathybjones

    Do the best you can to make the world a place for everyone. And do it now. And to do that you have to care for self and world simultaneously. But, yes, it does change with time in anyone’s life, especially when the “now” feels shorter and shorter.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, but profound sayings can be irritating too. Depends on the mood we might be in. As is, is!
    ‘C’est la vie’ is another dreadful one that people sometimes hang near the front door, near the bell. I usually avoid ringing that bell.

    Liked by 2 people

    • P.S. to my first, more ingratiating, reply: Actually “What is, is” and “C’est la vie” aren’t profound at all. They’re verbal markers for when people don’t know what else to say to something that’s a downer. The Hillel quote is in another category entirely. However, I give you a pass, Gerard. You did step up to the bat! 🙂


    • Balance is certainly what comes to mind first. But when applied to real life, that kind of balance is less easy. Take, for instance, the young professional mother of two small children I met at a party given by a son and daughter-in-law. She was a trial lawyer. “How do you manage?” I asked. “I don’t,” she said. “When I’m in the office I’m thinking of the children, and when I’m home, I’m thinking about what’s going on in the office. I’m not a good mother and I’m not a good lawyer.” What is she to do? Give up her very demanding profession till her children are grown? (In other words, achieve “balance” sequentially? Hillel counsels “If not now, when?”) Staying home, if she can afford to, would defeat any possibility of developing a meaningful career. Disregard the emotional needs of her children? (What loving mother could do that?) Yes, there is a lot to ponder there, Barbara.


    • Well, Van, that was what I thought too, when I first saw it. But I’m sure it’s not just about putting small checks in envelopes for worthy community causes while going about what’s important to oneself. (And even there, after you send out a few checks, you become inundated with more demands than you can comfortably meet — and have to begin saying no.) See, for instance, the example I gave to Barbara, above. Or what of the husband in a good-paying job he hates, one that destroys his sense of self-worth, but who has an ill wife and small children to support, and no economic margin that would give him the luxury of trying to find something else more personally satisfying with a salary adequate to support his family? Or what of the wife — I’m getting to know more and more of these — whose life has become that of the caretaker of a beloved family member with an eventually fatal but lingering disease? What is she to do “now?” So it’s really not so easy — especially, as Kathy Jones observed in the first comment, when the “now” probably left to you begins to feel shorter and shorter.


  3. Hi Nina, When I think of community, I think of giving your time and energy to something outside your immediate family, mostly volunteer work. I was blessed with an economic situation that allowed me to do that, and it was more rewarding than any employed experience, for so many reasons. I agree on the check writing, having been bombarded with requests myself. It’s certainly challenging for the family caregiver who goes ill, and the sole supporting father with job satisfaction issues. But I’d respectfully disagree with the concerns of the professional woman who decides to have a family. I’ve always felt that it was about timing. I am one of many who worked for many years before starting a family, and took almost a decade off to be with my children. The career path did suffer, but it was so worth it. I’d do it exactly the same way if I had the chance. Just some opinions to share, inspired by your thoughtful comment. Thanks for the conversation. Van

    Liked by 1 person

    • As a matter of fact, Van, I made the same choice you did about having children. But I never really liked the work I was doing, and looked forward to being home with my babies. I still feel those thirteen years with them were the happiest in my life, although there were many economic difficulties along the way. And yes, what I did afterwards — going to law school and practicing law — did suffer, in that I never had the chance to develop into the same kind of lawyer I might have done if I had begun young and worked right through. But you see, “being for me” was the same as “being for my children” so it didn’t really come within the purview of the Hillel quotation. Thank you, too, for your equally thoughtful comment.


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