AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Sunday, 1 January 2017

If I am not for myself who is for me?

Rabbi Hillel the Elder the leader of the Jewish Supreme Court in the Land of Israel in the early part of the 1st Century CE, is popularly known as the author of two sayings: (1) "If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" (Pirkei Avot Chapter 1:14) [1] and (2) the expression of the ethic of reciprocity, or "Golden Rule": "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."[2]

The first teaching  is coming to deal with the tensions between self and non-self. In other words, every person struggles on a daily basis with the balance between what one does for oneself and what one expects from others. Hillel is saying that the bottom line is that one’s life is in one’s own hands – don’t expect anyone to make your life for you because they can’t and won’t. On the other hand, if one’s focus is only on oneself to the exclusion of others, then what value does the person have? To be completely selfish is to lose touch with the rest of the world, to lose touch with life.

The connection between the first and last part of the teaching is not obvious. The last part is saying that since we don’t know what each hour will bring, we must respond to each moment as if it is a once in a lifetime opportunity – ‘if not now’, when are you going to have another chance. On a deeper level, it could be saying that each moment in our lives is unique – even though it may seem that the opportunity to do something returns the next day, the context is never the same.

The second teaching is called "The Golden Rule" and is the comparative response to the challenge of a Gentile who asked that the Torah be explained to him while he stood on one foot, illustrates the character differences between Hillel and his contemporary and colleague Rabbi Shammai. Shammai dismissed the man. Hillel accepted the question but gently chastised the man:
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn"[3]
Hillel recognized brotherly love, also known as "the Golden Rule", as the fundamental principle of Jewish moral law. (Lev. xix. 18).

This saying of Hillel which introduces the collection of his maxims in the Mishnaic treatise Abot mentions Aaron as the great model to be imitated in his love of peace, in his love of man, and in his leading mankind to a knowledge of the Law (Ab. i. 12). In mentioning these characteristics, which the Haggadah then already ascribed to Moses' brother, Hillel mentions his own most prominent virtues. Love of man was considered by Hillel as the kernel of the entire Jewish teaching. When a heathen who wished to become a Jew asked him for a summary of the Jewish religion in the most concise terms, Hillel said: "What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary" (Shab. 31a). With these words Hillel recognized as the fundamental principle of the Jewish moral law the Biblical precept of brotherly love (Lev. xix. 18). Almost the same thing was taught by Paul, a pupil of Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel (Gal. v. 14; comp. Rom. xiii. 8); and more broadly by Jesus when he declared the love of one's neighbor to be the second great commandment beside the love of God, the first (Matt. xxii. 39; Mark xii. 31; Luke x. 27). It may be assumed without argument that Hillel's answer to the proselyte, which is extant in a narrative in the Babylonian Talmud (comp. also Ab. R. N., recension B., cxxvi. [ed. Schechter, p. 53]), was generally known in Palestine, and that it was not without its effect on the founder of Christianity.

It has been remarked that Hillel did not, like Jesus, state the love of God to be the principal commandment of the Jewish teaching (see Delitzsch, "Jesus und Hillel," p. 17); but it must not be forgotten that Jesus gave his answer to a scribe, whereas Hillel answered the question of a prospective proselyte, to whom it was necessary first of all to show how the teachings of Judaism are to be practised by him who wishes to accept them. That the love of God had also a central position in Hillel's conception of religion needs not to be proved; this position had long been assigned to it in Judaism—since the Scripture passage in which this precept is joined immediately to the confession of the unity of God (Deut. vi. 4 et seq.) had been made the principal portion of the daily prayer. Moreover, the Pharisaic scribes who approved of Jesus' answer evidently belonged to Hillel's school. Hillel seems to have connected the precept of brotherly love with the Biblical teaching of man's likeness to God, on which account he calls the love of man "love of creatures" ("oheb et ha-beriyyot"); and it is worthy of note that the term "creatures" for men was then already the common property of the language.

From the doctrine of man's likeness to God Hillel ingeniously deduced man's duty to care for his own body. In a conversation with his disciples (Lev. R. xxxiv.) he said: "As in a theater and circus the statues of the king must be kept clean by him to whom they have been entrusted, so the bathing of the body is a duty of man, who was created in the image of the almighty King of the world." In another conversation Hillel calls his soul a guest upon earth, toward which he must fulfil the duties of charity (ib.). Man's duty toward himself Hillel emphasized also in the first sentence of his saying (Ab. i. 14): "If I am not for myself, who is for me? and if I am only for myself, what am I? and if not now, when?" The second part of this sentence expresses the same idea as another of Hillel's teachings (Ab. ii. 4): "Separate not thyself from the congregation." The third part contains the admonition to postpone no duty—the same admonition which he gave with reference to study (Ab. ii. 4): "Say not, 'When I have time I shall study'; for you may perhaps never have any leisure."

The precept that one should not separate oneself from the community, Hillel paraphrases, with reference to Eccl. iii. 4, in the following saying (Tosef., Ber. ii., toward the end): "Appear neither naked nor clothed, neither sitting nor standing, neither laughing nor weeping." Man should not appear different from others in his outward deportment; he should always regard himself as a part of the whole, thereby showing that love of man which Hillel taught. The feeling of love for one's neighbor shows itself also in his exhortation (Ab. ii. 4): "Judge not thy neighbor till thou art in his place" (comp. Matt. vii. 1). In the following maxim is expressed also his consciousness of his own insufficiency: "Trust not thyself till the day of thy death." How far his love of man went may be seen from an example which shows that benevolence must act with regard to the needs of him who is to be helped. Thus a man of good family who had become poor Hillel provided with a riding horse, in order that he might not be deprived of his customary physical exercise, and with a slave, in order that he might be served (Tosef., Peah, iv. 10; Ket. 67b).

That the same spirit of kindness prevailed in Hillel's house is shown by a beautiful story (Derek Ereẓ v.). Hillel's wife one day gave the whole ofa meal, prepared in honor of a guest, to a poor man, and at once prepared another. When she excused herself for the delay and explained its cause, Hillel praised her for her action. How firmly Hillel was persuaded that peace was ruling in his house, the following tradition teaches (Ber. 60a; Yer. Ber. 14b): When one day he came near his house and heard a noise, he expressed, in the words of Ps. cxii. 7 ("He shall not be afraid of evil tidings"), his confidence that the noise could not be in his house. His trust in God was such that whereas Shammai provided for the Sabbath already on the first day of the week, Hillel referred to Ps. lxviii. 19: "Blessed be the Lord who daily loadeth us with benefits" (Beẓah 16a).

Hillel and Shammai
In the memory of posterity Hillel lived, on the one hand, as the scholar who made the whole contents of the traditional law his own (Soferim xvi. 9), who, in opposition to his colleague, Shammai, generally advocated milder interpretations of the Halakah, and whose disciples as a "house," that is, as "Hillel's school," stood in like opposition to Shammai's disciples. On the other hand, he was known as the saint and the sage who in his private life and in his dealings with men practised the high virtues of morality and resignation, just as he taught them in his maxims with unexcelled brevity and earnestness. The traditions concerning Hillel's life harmonize completely with the sayings which are handed down in his name, and bear in themselves the proof of their genuineness. No wonder that the Babylonian Talmud is richer in traditions concerning Hillel than the Palestinian, since the Babylonians were especially careful to preserve the recollection of their great countryman; and in the Babylonian schools of the third century was proudly quoted the saying of the Palestinian Simeon ben Laḳish—on the whole no friend of the Babylonians—in which he placed the activity of Hillel on a level with that of Ezra, who also went up from Babylon to Jerusalem. Hillel's sayings are preserved partly in Hebrew, the language of the school, partly in Aramaic, the language of the people, or, as it is said in Ab. R. N. xii., in the language of Hillel's home ("the Babylonian language").

All of the above to introduce a short summary of Israel's history in support of its existence, which even today is often malignantly questioned and/or strongly opposed:

The Land of Israel
Eretz Yisra'el (in Hebrew)

The Promised Land

The history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham, and the story of Abraham begins when God tells him to leave his homeland, promising Abraham and his descendants a new home in the land of Canaan. (Gen. 12). This is the land now known as Israel, named after Abraham's grandson, whose descendants are the Jewish people. The land is often referred to as the Promised Land because of God's repeated promise (Gen. 12:7, 13:15, 15:18, 17:8) to give the land to the descendants of Abraham.

The land is described repeatedly in the Torah as a good land and "a land flowing with milk and honey" (e.g., Ex. 3:8). This description may not seem to fit well with the desert images we see on the nightly news, but let's keep in mind that the land was repeatedly abused by conquerors who were determined to make the land uninhabitable for the Jews. In the few decades since the Jewish people regained control of the land, we have seen a tremendous improvement in its agriculture. Israeli agriculture today has a very high yield.

Jews have lived in this land continuously from the time of its original conquest by Joshua more than 3200 years ago until the present day, though Jews were not always in political control of the land, and Jews were not always the majority of the land's population.

The land of Israel is central to Judaism. A substantial portion of Jewish law is tied to the land of Israel, and can only be performed there. Some rabbis have declared that it is a mitzvah (commandment) to take possession of Israel and to live in it (relying on Num. 33:53). The Talmud indicates that the land itself is so holy that merely walking in it can gain you a place in the World to ComePrayers for a return to Israel and Jerusalem are included in daily prayers as well as many holiday observances and special events.

Living outside of Israel is viewed as an unnatural state for a Jew. The world outside of Israel is often referred to as "galut," which is usually translated as "diaspora" (dispersion), but a more literal translation would be "exile" or "captivity." When we live outside of Israel, we are living in exile from our land.

Jews were exiled from the land of Israel by the Romans in 135 C.E., after they defeated the Jews in a three-year war, and Jews did not have any control over the land again until 1948 C.E.

Zionism and the Formation of the State of Israel

The Jewish people never gave up hope that we would someday return to our home in Israel. That hope is expressed in the song Ha-Tikvah (The Hope), the anthem of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel.MIDI
Kol od baleivav p'nima
Nefesh Y'hudi homiya
Ul'fa-atey mizrach kadima
Ayin L'Tziyon tzofiya
Od lo avda tikvateynu
Hatikva bat sh'not alpayim
Lih'yot am chofshi b'artzenu
Eretz Tziyon v'yirushalayim.
Lih'yot am chofshi b'artzenu
Eretz Tziyon v'yirushalayim
As long as deep within the heart
The Jewish soul is warm
And toward the edges of the east
An eye to Zion looks
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years
To be a free people in our own land
In the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
To be a free people in our own land
In the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
But for a long time, this desire for our homeland was merely a vague hope without any concrete plans to achieve it. In the late 1800s, Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann founded Zionism, a political movement dedicated to the creation of a Jewish state. They saw a state of Israel as a necessary refuge for Jewish victims of oppression, especially in Russia, where pogroms were decimating the Jewish population.

The name "Zionism" comes from the word "Zion," which was the name of a stronghold in Jerusalem. Over time, the term "Zion" came to be applied to Jerusalem in general, and later to the Jewish idea of utopia.

Zionism was not a religious movement; it was a primarily political. The early Zionists sought to establish a secular state of Israel, recognized by the world, through purely legal means. Theodor Herzl, for example, was a completely assimilated secular Jewish journalist. He felt little attachment to his Jewish heritage until he covered the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French military who was (unjustly) convicted of passing secrets to Germany. The charges against Dreyfus brought out a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment that shocked Herzl into realizing the need for a Jewish state. Early Zionists were so desperate for a refuge at one point that they actually considered a proposal to create a Jewish homeland in Uganda. Alaska and Siberia were also discussed. But the only land that truly inspired Jewish people worldwide was our ancient homeland, at that time a part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire known as Palestine.

During World War I, the Zionist cause gained some degree of support from Great Britain. In a 1917 letter from British foreign secretary Lord Balfour to Jewish financier Lord Rothschild, the British government expressed a commitment to creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This letter is commonly known as the Balfour Declaration. Unfortunately, the British were speaking out of both sides of their mouth, simultaneously promising Arabs their freedom if they helped to defeat the Ottoman Empire, which at that time controlled most of the Middle East (including the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as significant portions of Saudi Arabia and northern Africa). The British promised the Arabs that they would limit Jewish settlement in Palestine mere months after the Balfour Declaration expressed support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

After World War I, Palestine was assigned to the United Kingdom as a mandated territory by the newly-formed League of Nations. The Palestinian Mandate initially included the lands that are now Israel and Jordan, but all lands east of the Jordan River were later placed into a separate mandate known as Transjordan (now the nation of Jordan). The document creating the Palestinian mandate incorporated the terms of the Balfour Declaration, promising the creation of a national Jewish homeland within the mandated territory. Many Arab leaders were initially willing to give Palestine to the Jews if the rest of the Arab lands in the Middle East were under Arab control. However, the Arabs living in Palestine vigorously opposed Jewish immigration into the territory and the idea of a Jewish homeland. It is around this time that the idea of Palestinian nationality (distinct from Arab nationality generally) first begins to appear. There were many riots in the territory, and the British came to believe that the conflicting claims were irreconcilable. In 1937, the British recommended partition of the territory.

The Holocaust brought the need for a Jewish homeland into sharp focus for both Jews and for the rest of the world. The Jews who tried to flee Nazi Germany were often turned back due to immigration limitations at the borders of every country, including the United States, Britain and Palestine. Many of those who were sent back to Germany ended up in death camps where they were systematically murdered.

The British were unable to come up with a solution that would satisfy either Arabs or Jews, so in 1947, they handed the problem to the newly-founded United Nations, which developed a partition plan dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab portions. The plan was ratified in November 1947. The mandate expired on May 14, 1948 and British troops pulled out of Palestine. The Jews of Palestine promptly declared the creation of the State of Israel, which was recognized by several Western countries immediately.

However, the surrounding Arab nations did not recognize the validity of Israel and invaded, claiming that they were filling a vacuum created by the termination of the mandate and the absence of any legal authority to replace it. The Arabs fought a year-long war to drive the Jews out. Miraculously, the new state of Israel won this war, as well as every subsequent Arab-Israeli war, gaining territory every time the Arabs attacked them.

Israel Today

Today, approximately five million Jews, more than a third of the world's Jewish population, live in the land of Israel. Jews make up more than eighty percent of the population of the land, and Jews are in political control of the land, though non-Jews who become citizens of Israel have the same legal rights as Jewish citizens of Israel. In fact, there are a few Arab members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament).

About half of all Israelis are Mizrachim, descended from Jews who have been in the land since ancient times or who were forced out of Arab countries after Israel was founded. Most of the rest are Ashkenazic, descended from Jews who fled persecution in Eastern Europe starting in the late 1800s, from Holocaust survivors, or from other immigrants who came at various times. About 1% of the Israeli population are the black Ethiopian Jews who fled during the brutal Ethiopian famine in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Jews continue to immigrate to Israel in large numbers. Immigration to Israel is referred to as aliyah (literally, ascension). Under Israel's Law of Return, any Jew who has not renounced the Jewish faith (by converting to another religion) can automatically become an Israeli citizen, somewhat similar to the way Ireland gives automatic citizenship to second or third generation descendants of Irish citizens. Gentiles may also become citizens of Israel after undergoing a standard naturalization process, much like the one required to become a United States citizen.

Israel is governed by a legislative body called the Knesset (literally, "Assembly"), made up of 120 members. Under the Israeli electoral system, each party presents a list of candidates, and voters vote for the list rather than for individual candidates. The party receives a number of seats proportional to the number of votes it received, thus a party getting 10% of the vote will get 10% of the available seats. As a result, no Israeli party ever has a majority of the seats in the Knesset, and governmental business is conducted by coalition building. This system can give minority groups a significant amount of power, because their support may be needed to gain a majority. Israel also has a president, elected by the Knesset, and a Prime Minister, formerly elected directly but this system is in flux.

Most Jews today support the existence of the state of Israel, though not necessarily all of the policies of its government (as one would expect in any democracy). There are a small number of secular Jews who are anti-Zionist. There is also a very small group of right-wing Orthodox Jews who object to the existence of the state of Israel, maintaining that it is a sin for us to create a Jewish state when the messiah has not yet come. However, this viewpoint does not reflect the mainstream opinion of Orthodoxy. Most Orthodox Jews support the existence of the state of Israel as a homeland, even though it is not the theological state of Israel that will be brought about by the messiah.

  • Israel Links --- This summary barely scratches the surface of all there is to say about Israel and Zionism. There are entire sites devoted to these subjects. Here are a few that are worth checking out:
    Virtual Jerusalem is a great place to start your search for information about Israel. The site is based in Israel, and has lots of useful information, including Israeli news, travel information, information about making aliyah, and lots of great links.
    If you are interested in the history of Zionism, you may want to read the founding treatise on the subject, Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State (Paperback) (Kindle).

To conclude, here follows a recent (December 2016) brief message by Aviel Schneider, the Editor of Israel Today:

Shalom Chaverim,

Dear friends,

Why is Israel so hated by the world? The story of Jacob provides the answer. Jacob favored one of his children, Joseph, above the others. And that led to bitter jealousy. I don’t know any father today who would do such a thing. It’s a recipe for disaster. And yet, Jacob was following God’s lead. As creator of all, God also favored one nation - Israel!

From that moment on, Israel has been maligned. And in our day, this is most clearly seen in mainstream media coverage. But this seemingly self-defeating decision by both Jacob and God had a higher purpose. It is for this reason that Israel Today is so critical to truly understanding what is happening in the Holy Land.

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place... And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14) Now is the time. Join us hand-in-hand in spreading the truth that “the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind...” (I Samuel 15:29)

We in Jerusalem cannot do it alone. Like Esther, you have been born for such a time as this - to bring comfort and hope to Israel, to spread God’s truth and to stand against the lies of the enemy.

Yours from Jerusalem,

Aviel Schneider

If I am not for myself who is for me?

Jacob and his children