The Full Hillel
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Hillel’s sage advice echoes through the ages. His hallowed counsel from the first century seems custom tailored for the 21st.
But it strikes me that we often quote Hillel in fragments or at moments when we need a personal push—a reminder not to be selfish or procrastinate. Being for myself may be what I need help with today; helping others may be for tomorrow.
There’s nothing wrong with picking up a piece of advice for the right occasion, but the power of Hillel’s teaching is in its holistic approach—not to be used at a convenient moment but as a way of life, 365 days a year: Insist on our worth and our rights as individuals; defend the rights of others and be part of a community; take action now in accordance with our values.
Modern habits and technology separate and compartmentalize us. Sophisticated means of communication that link us also make it all too easy to connect by not sitting in the same room. Community requires that sometimes we experience one another with all five senses at the same time.
Until two generations ago, and for most of human history, social organization conspired to force us into the public arena, know our neighbors up close, know people who were not like us and better appreciate the texture of our diverse society. Today, the trend is to cluster in more homogeneous groups, shop and bank from home and socialize online.
We are about to have one of the few universal civic experiences of our time and it is incumbent on all of us to take part. I’m talking about voting on November 8. In a “good” year, barely 60 percent of voting age Americans cast ballots in presidential elections. Compare this with 76-percent participation in Israel and 89 percent in first-place Belgium.
This year, we are having one of the most intensely contested elections in memory and many people are bound to be disappointed by the result. The only way we can all win something is by voting.
Pundits say that voter turnout is low because people are turned off by politics and partisanship. I think that’s backward. It’s my hunch that if more people voted—thereby acting as if they had a stake in the process—satisfaction would increase as well, even if our candidates don’t always prevail.
So make sure you are registered and then make sure you vote. The same goes for your family. If you have children or grandchildren in college in a different state, make sure they know well in advance where they can and will vote. And if voting in person is not possible, be sure to get absentee ballots.
Our grandparents, whether they lived in countries without voting rights or were new citizens of America, wouldn’t understand the low participation rates today. That’s why they came here. To paraphrase Hillel, let’s vote not only for our own sake, but also for theirs.
The importance of community is built into Jewish culture. We left Egypt and became a nation together. Zionism brought us together from every corner of the world. The need for a minyan teaches us that the prayers of the community take precedence over those of the individual.
When this year’s election is over, I hope that as Jews and Americans we will be motivated to participate more in civic and communal life—going to meetings or public gatherings, doing volunteer work, getting a bit more real—even if that means being a bit less virtual.
The High Holiday season is the perfect time to remember the importance of community and our individual need to be part of something larger than ourselves. This year, may we all take comfort within our families and congregations. And may we be inspired, whether by the wisdom of today or from the ages.
L’Shanah tovah u’metukah.