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?