13 - Situations - If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

A person does not discharge his obligations simply by perfecting his character; rather he must improve his environment and those amenable to his influence.

We are stretching in ahavas yisrael together to create z’chuyos for K’lal Yisrael in these urgent times.


Last week’s stretch of the week was:  Identify something you appreciate about someone you see often but feel you have little in common with.   

Please allow ONE person to share her experience with this exercise for ONE minute.

Situations Lesson #13


Im Ain Ani Li Mi Li - If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

אם אין אני לי מי לי

Perek Aleph, Mishna Yud Daled Part 1

Story(based on a true story)

It was too late to escape at that moment.  We'd already made eye contact across the coffee shop and I could see the elderly lady heading my way, weaving her way in-between tables.  I carefully closed my laptop, angry that my free morning was undoubtedly going to be interrupted by a stranger, albeit a fellow religious Jew.  Nonetheless, she'd seen my head covering, and like a magnet was drawn to me.

I had just dropped off my daughter at her gan and I couldn't wait to grab a much needed Grande with a splash of hazelnut and a good hour of online catching up with my girlfriends from seminary.   

"Do you mind if I sit with you, dearie?" the elderly woman asked, but then began pulling out the chair with her frail hand.  That's when I saw the numbers.  The unmistakable tattoo of a survivor from atrocities I can't even begin to relate to.  

I had a choice at that point.  Be stuck, or make-up some excuse and flee.  I was gravitating toward the latter.  I have a busy life after all.  I have at least half a dozen things I could have been doing at home for myself and my family; laundry, making beds, preparing dinner, etc...  The old woman’s hands shook while placing her coffee cup down, and as she sat she began to tell me that she was waiting for her daughter to pick her up after her daughter finished grocery shopping.  

Did I want to get involved?  I'd only allowed myself an hour of "free time" and then I really had to head home.  What if she kept me for longer and it was hard to get away? For a few moments I was actually very resentful for having my hour 'stolen' from me.  I'm a very busy mom, and I don't often get ‘me-time’.  But then I looked at this woman and imagined what her life must have been like when she was my age, and I quickly decided to stay at the table and chat with her.  In the end, I'm glad that I did.  

I can't remember exactly what we began to talk about first, but I do remember that we exchanged names and family information, and talked about how many children we each had.  She added how many grandchildren and great grandchildren she had as well!  We laughed and sighed over the joys and pitfalls of being busy mothers and then somehow we got to talking about when she was my age and then to when she was even younger.  

Finally she brought up her time during the Holocaust.  She didn't get graphic, but she did get sentimental and explained to me how her generation is almost gone and that it's up to my generation to share their stories.  I'm almost embarrassed to say that she was the first Holocaust survivor I'd ever spoken to.  This situation made a real impact on me, enough for me to realize perhaps that Hashem might have sent her my way for a good reason.  

It's possible that I might have been too wrapped up in myself, my family, my friends and the bubble I'd created for myself.  Our electronic world today enables us to stay inside that bubble so easily.  With the world at our fingertips, with online news, emails, texts, and so on - in person connection is sometimes last on the list.  If a person becomes too self-consumed, she can practically lose her humanity.  I was reminded that I needed to look around the world again, and break out more.  Make eye contact outside my bubble so that wouldn't happen.  

My new friend and I still keep in touch.  In fact, she's introduced me to her daughter and some of her friends as well.  However, the best part of our meeting each other is that once a month I now visit a nursing home and assist with very aged Holocaust survivors.  I've heard many heartening stories, and I'm proud to say I can carry their legacy along to the next generation so no one forgets them.  I learned a lot that day in the coffee shop, and it was well worth giving up that one hour of solitary me-time to gain a lifetime of enriched me-time.  

Pirkay Avos:


"…"הוא ×”×™×” אומר: אם אין אני לי, מי לי, וכשאני לעצמי מה אני

“Hu haya omer:  Im ain ani li, mi li, u’ch’she’a’ni  l’atzmi muh ani…”

“He (Hillel) used to say:  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  And if I am for myself, what am I?...” (Perek Aleph, Mishne Yud Daled).

Rashi and Rav Ovadia of Bartenura understand Hillel to be speaking of the merit one gains by learning Torah and performing mitzvos.  By proclaiming, “Im ain ani li mi li,” if I am not for myself, who will be for me, Hillel is urging us to fully exploit the innate potential of our soul.  However, Hillel insists that it is not enough to perfect oneself.   But rather, as he continues, “U’ch’she’a’ni l’atzmi muh ani,” and if I am for myself, what am I?  I must also seek to perfect the entire universe.  

While a literal translation of the phrase “Im ain ani li mi li” seems to suggest that we stand alone in our quest for spiritual growth, this interpretation is untenable.  Chazal relate, “Habah l’taher mesayin osoh,” one who seeks to purify himself is surely assisted by HaShem.  The mishna is merely emphasizing the importance of taking the initiative, as the Chazal stresses, “Haba l’taher,” one who seeks.  Once we take the initiative, not only HaShem Himself but also all his creations will in their own fashion assist those who seek to come close to Him.

It may be tempting for the individual now enjoying unparalleled success to forget the source of his new-found prowess.  To prevent this misconception, the mishna continues ““U’ch’she’a’ni l’atzmi muh ani,” and if I am for myself, what am I?  Remember that your deeds are not sufficient without the Divine assistance you now enjoy.

Midrash Shmuel provides an elucidation of this mishna in terms of a person’s social responsibilities.  “If I am not for myself, then who is for me?”  A person must learn self-reliance.  Yet “if I am for myself”, if I am concerned only for myself, then “what am I?” Am I fulfilling my role?  Have I accomplished my purpose?  “All Israel are responsible for one another”, teach our Sages (Shavuos 39a).  A person does not discharge his obligations simply by perfecting his character; rather he must improve his environment and those amenable to his influence.  

Rav Ovadia S’forno presents a similar idea in his explanation of the verse, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helpmate” (B’raishis 2:18).  He understands this verse to be a statement about the nature of man’s existential condition.  If a man were alone, if he had no one to interact with, no one to care for, no one who depended on him, that would constitute a void in the perfection and goodness of his own being.  A person must have others with whom to associate and whom to help.

(Reproduced from Rav Lau on Pirkei Avos and from Pirkei Avos with Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes and other Chassidic Masters, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)

Discussion Question Options:

What are the signs that someone is becoming too self-consumed?

What does "perfecting the entire universe" mean to you?

Helping others involves self-sacrifice.  What sort of things do you give up or sacrifice to help others?

Stretch of the Week:

Do one nice thing you wouldn't normally do, to take yourself out of your comfortable "bubble".  


Stretch Of The Week