Living & Learning
One of the key steps in balancing your interests with those of another is to understand the other’s world: their hopes and fears, their admirations and antipathies. Who in your life should you try to understand better? What should you be asking, when and how should you ask?
- Raise the questions in the course of the need to coordinate practical problems, such as your to-do lists.
- Ask general, open-ended questions as openers, not pointed questions that would pin someone down to a specific line of answers.
- Show non-judgmental interest in understanding the other person.
Who have you felt well understood by? What was your relationship? When you understood others well, did it help? Sometimes, when others have power over you, it is against your interest to share all information. Have you every been taken advantage of because of such personal information?
If I am not for myself, who is for me?
And when I am for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when? (1:14)
Today, Hillel’s famous three questions are usually taken rhetorically, meaning: look out for yourself and stick up for yourself, or no one else will; if you are only concerned for your own selfish interests, you are unworthy; and now is the time to act. Medieval commentators also take the questions rhetorically, but give a more pious interpretation: only I can carry out my responsibility to do good, and receive the merits by which God will judge me when I die. Maimonides adds psychological insight: when a person is young, he or she acquires habits of doing right or wrong—virtues and vices. Therefore, youths should do good deeds now, and not wait until adulthood.
Hillel put these sayings in the form of questions, though, because, I believe, he intended them to be taken not only rhetorically, but also to actually be asked and answered when we face important decisions.
If not I for myself, who then?
If I do not acquire merit for myself in this world who will acquire merit for me in the life of the world to come, [where] I have no father, I have no mother, I have no brother, where Father Abraham cannot redeem Ishmael, Father Isaac cannot redeem Esau (ARNB).
If I do not lay up merit in my lifetime, acquire knowledge of the Torah and the doing of good works, who will acquire them for me? For these obligations have been turned over to me, and freedom of action has been granted me, as it is written, See 1 have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil (Deuteronomy 30:15). That is why one who does good is rewarded and one who transgresses is punished: for if our actions were determined by Heaven and not by ourselves, if man were compelled to do what he does, it would not be just to reward those who do good and to punish those who transgress (Aknin).
Every man should acquire merit for himself and not depend upon the merit of others being laid up in his behalf (Duran).