“אם אין אני לי, מי לי – If I am not for myself, who will be?” Or, to put it more colloquially, “Look out for #1.”
On first reading, this statement of Hillel (פרקי אבות א:יד) seems out of character. We are told stories of Hillel’s incredible patience when dealing with other people, including very trying situations where he definitely puts his own needs second. So what does Hillel mean by “Look out for yourself first?”
One might answer that this first position is moderated by Hillel’s following advice, “וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני – And when I am only for myself, what am I?” Not merely “Who am I?” but more forcefully “What am I?” Am I even human if all I do is look out for myself, disregarding others around me?
But this second consideration only comes after the first. Only after I look out for myself first can I then consider other people. Does Hillel intend for us to first indulge in selfish pleasure before becoming proper citizens of the world? That is hardly a sentiment we would expect from Hillel. What then could he mean?
I understand Hillel’s first comment not as a way to act. Rather, it is a lesson in self-awareness. A person has to understand what his needs are. The first step to this realization is to understand that having needs is not being selfish; it is being human. Everyone has needs. Some people have fewer needs, others have more. Some have needs that require a lot of effort to satisfy, others are more easily achieved. Some need others to provide them, others can be done by the person him- or herself.
But the bottom line is, everyone has needs.
So we have to accept that we have needs, and we have to understand what those needs are.
And this has to be done before a person can contemplate entering into a significant relationship with another person. Because if it is not done first, the person will find him- or herself lacking something in life without a way to express that need. And the significant other in the relationship will not be able to help the first person because he or she will not have any idea of what to do. That can lead to frustration and exasperation, and extreme strain on the relationship.
Having a clear picture of one’s needs is not sufficient, though. The person has to feel comfortable expressing those needs. That’s why it is crucial for people to understand that needs are human, that everyone has them. And expressing them helps others to get them met.
And knowing that everyone has needs means that you have to see what other people’s needs are as well. For if you only look out for your own needs, Hillel questions your very humanity.
So rather than Hillel stating that we have to only look out for ourselves, he is setting a framework for collaborative relationships. Relationships that help both people involved. Or as many people as there are in the relationship, be it a couple, a family, a community. Even a person alone.
As parents, it is our obligation to nurture our children’s sense of self. We work hard to assist them in building confidence in themselves. Young children do not know that failure is bad. Just watch children learning to walk; after each fall, they get up and try again until they finally succeed. And we cheer them on, even knowing they will fall after the next tentative step or two.
As children get older, we have to grow more sophisticated in our approaches as well. The Torah writes (בראשית ח:כא), כי יצר לב האדם רע מנעריו” – The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Unlike Catholicism which believes in “Original Sin,” that humans are born with the urge to do bad, Judaism believes that our selfish desires are learned behaviors, they come to us in our youth. An infant very quickly learns that crying brings attention. The caretakers provide for the helpless infant; but the child learns selfishness.
Our task as people is to overcome this deeply rooted behavior. Our parents and others teach us this by training us to share. But they do not explain sharing as an act of selflessness; it is taught as an act of mutual gain. You want, the other child wants. The other child has a turn, you get a turn. You have a need, so does the other person. A loving lesson based on Hillel.
As educators, our job is to help parents strengthen both the sense of self of the child, as well as the senses of sympathy and empathy. But parents and educators have to all be realistic in polishing a child’s sense of self.
Anyone who watched the auditions for American Idol saw the dangers of unbridled promotion of self-esteem and confidence. The total shock and utter disbelief on the faces of candidates who had absolutely no singing ability at all finally hearing the harsh reality from even sympathetic judges teaches an indelible lesson of the harm of unrealistically propping up a person’s belief in him- or herself.
Yes, it is critical to encourage children, and even tell them they can do anything they set their hearts to. But the way we present that lesson has to mature along with the age of the child.
It is crucial for children to understand that they can always improve, they can always get smarter. That they are not born with a fixed IQ. But it is also equally important for children to understand that growth takes a lot of hard work, often years of sustained, directed effort, in order to gain expertise in many areas of life. We must also teach children to look realistically at themselves when taking stock of their abilities.
All of these lessons are as much a part of Hillel’s “Know yourself” directive as is the understanding of one’s own personal needs.
Self-knowledge is also a prerequisite to self-fulfillment. Henry David Thoreau, in his book Resistance to Civil Government, writes:
He who gives himself entirely to his fellow men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.
Thoreau’s intent is that people should not give themselves up mindlessly to civil service, doing whatever government demands, without engaging intellectually or morally with their actions. The person who stands up against blindly following the government, serving with conscience, who “gives himself partially,” is the benefactor of society. Thoreau identifies these people as “heroes” and “patriots.”
My intent in this piece is not to critique the way people are governed. I want to view Thoreau’s comment, though, through the lens of Hillel’s perspective. A person who acts in a way that gives no weight to his own personal needs, only doing things for others, the person who tries to skip Hillel’s first stage of self-awareness, might at first seem to be the epitome of beneficence. The reality, though, is quite different.
In the movie Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey is given divine powers; he is placed in charge of running the world. Requests from people come to his computer as emails. The number of prayers keeps on multiplying. Finally, totally overwhelmed, Bruce answers “Yes” to every request made of him, stating that now everyone will like him. Rather than being appreciated for his benevolence, people start rioting; after all, what is the specialness of winning a lottery if everyone wins and it only pays $17. Giving can only be appreciated if it is done in moderation. As Thoreau said, “He who gives himself entirely…appears…useless and selfish.” Or as Hillel implied, know your needs first, then see to other people’s needs. Absolute selflessness is not humanly possible.
David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, has a different definition of benefactor. He wrote, “The sweetest path of life leads through the avenues of learning, and whoever can open up the way for another, ought, so far, to be esteemed a benefactor to mankind.”
Collaboration is a skill becoming increasingly more important in the world we occupy. Whether it is governments, or companies, or groups working together, tasks are becoming so complex that there is no expectation that one person alone will be able to accomplish them. This new reality must be addressed from the earliest stages of a person’s learning experience.
In fact, parents work with their children to learn to be cooperative and to share. Yet when we send our children to school, suddenly the dynamic changes. Learning, at least in school, is not a shared experience. Each child must fend for him- or herself. Collaboration is branded “cheating,” an attempt to circumvent the rules.
Our task as school leaders is to smash the old paradigm. We must create opportunities for collaborative work. I have already written about the need to engage learners into the learning process in the first part of this series (SCHOLAR).
Our goal as educators is for the children entrusted into our care to use their self-awareness to move forward, not only on the path to self-fulfillment, but to be active partners in the growth of their circles of acquaintance. By being collaborative and sharing their understanding of the world, and by listening to others and growing from alternate perspectives, our children will be the “benefactors of mankind” that Hume wrote about.
Hugh Downs, the noted television personality, wrote: “A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.”
Or to quote בן זומא, whose statements in פרקי אבות have been the backbone of these essays: ”איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו. – Who is the wealthy person? The one who is satisfied with his lot.”
The benefactor, the truly wealthy person, has a healthy understanding about him- or herself, nurtured by parents, with partnership from school. That realization is refined to include seeing the needs of others. And further developed into helping others attain their goals.