Israeli Values Religious Voices

Letter 63 - Rabbi Chaya Rowen Beker

To the State of Israel and all its inhabitants,

Every chapter in your story is based on devotion. You came into existence against all odds - despite diplomatic and armed opposition and challenging physical conditions - and flourished. That magnificent beginning and our successes today are thanks to the devotion of those who gave precedence to what needs to be done, over their own comfort.

״If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?״ (Mishnah Avot 1:14).

It seems that the Mishnah, in Hillel's name, posits two conflicting values that motivate our choices: no one else will look out for me and therefore looking out for myself must be my focus; But if I only care about myself life is meaningless. "If not now - when" introduces a sense of urgency, which spurs action and requires prioritization.

I'm not sure these values are contradictory. One can be devoted to others while still benefiting oneself. Devotion to a loved one often rewards us with love; and devotion to a life's work benefits us by promoting values we hold to be important, bettering our environment, and filling life with satisfaction and meaning.

According to this understanding, the dedication to greater causes is called for by "If I am for my own self - what am I?" need not contradict one’s best interest. It does require prioritizing the important over the convenient; and also implies that trying to improve our life must include promoting a common good.

The first part of the Mishnah sounds entirely self-serving. However, Maimonides understood it as implying that we must rely not on an external force to motivate our desired action but rather on ourselves. Thus this Mishnah in its entirety is calling on us to dedicate ourselves to causes larger than one's own self, proactively and with a strong inner drive.

I wish for all of us such devotion, powered from within us, recognizing that life is  more meaningful that way; so that we too may continue writing with devotion an inspiring and glorious story of Israel.


Rabbi Chaya Rowen Beker

Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker is the Rabbi of Kehillat “Ramot-Zion” in French Hill, Jerusalem, and coordinator of Practical Rabbinics at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.

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