Navigating the space between taking care of the needs of the self and assisting with the needs of others is often fraught with difficult decisions. Some people are more prone to prioritize the self and some are more likely to sacrifice for others. Over the previous two essays we have utilized the first part of Hillel’s aphorism in Avot 1:14 (“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”) to accentuate the importance of taking individual responsibility for one’s own growth, and the second part (“If I am only for myself, what am I”) to emphasize the importance of social responsibility to service others.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks relates a conversation he had with the Catholic historian Paul Johnson (author of “A History of the Jews”), who noted that cultures are generally good at either focusing on the individual (like the secular West today), or the collective (communist Russia or China). One of the greatest achievements of Judaism, according to Johnson, has been to strike that rare, difficult, and delicate balance between the two. In essence, Rabbi Sacks notes, encapsulating Hillel’s maxim in historical terms.
To take the analysis one step further, we may ask, how exactly are we supposed to understand this balance? One way to understand it is that there will forever be a tension between the needs of self and the needs of others. We can’t focus exclusively on others because the self would deteriorate, but we also can’t focus exclusively on the self, because that would be selfish. The downside of such a conceptualization is that it can engender stress and guilt about whether or not the balance is being struck properly.
Rabbi Shimon Shkop presents a powerful alternative understanding that may serve as a more inspiring model. The key to reconcile the challenge of self and others, lies within our conceptualization of our ani – our sense of self. There can be little debate that the self needs to be prioritized. The question is how expansive is our view of the self. We can have a self-absorbed ani, which only focuses on our own needs. Yet, we can also expand our sense of self to include others. We can start by incorporating family members and friends, and then continually expand to the inclusion of community, the Jewish people, and then to the entirety of creation.
This idea, he contends, is embedded within Hillel’s teaching in Avot. “If I am not for me, who will be for me?” teaches that “It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for his welfare.” Yet,
“simultaneously, he must also strive to understand that “when I am for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see, then his “I” – what is it? It is shallow and inconsequential. However, if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, seeing that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth.”
Rabbi Shkop’s description relates to Arthur and Elain Aron’s self-expansion model of relationships, which conceptualizes the formation of relationships as having the sense of self expand to include the identity and needs of others. In relationships that are constructed this way, helping the other is in a sense helping the self, and helping the self is also helping the other. As the other gets incorporated in the sense of self, there is potentially less tension and conflict in determining the proper balance between prioritizing self-versus helping others.
As we move forward in learning Pirkei Avot, the themes of personal responsibility and social responsibility will continually be in the background. We are responsible for our own growth and we must service others. To the extent that we can work on expanding our sense of self to include others, these two will not be competing ideas, but one overarching goal towards the betterment of self and society.