middot equanimity daily living if I'm only for myself

if I'm only for myself

Written by  rabbi paul saal

art-selfishJust this morning as I was finishing a Yoga session I casually overheard an interesting and perhaps telling conversation. As I was coming out of the locker room I passed a common area where one of the instructors was “holding court” with a few students.

She was advocating that the students should try to come to a session every day and refuting the notion that they might be too busy to do so. But her choice of words left me somewhat nonplussed. She opined that, “I need to put myself first because nobody else will.”  Though this statement contained elements of truth, it nonetheless sounded too similar to the cacophony of noise constantly emanating from the contemporary consumerist culture.

In all fairness I should mention that I did not hear the entire conversation, nor have I had enough interaction with this instructor to adequately evaluate her intentions or the motivation behind the statement.  Yet I felt a little disturbed. I should preface this by stating that I do Yoga to improve my equanimity. I have always found that exercise of all kinds helps me to relieve tension and think clearly. Yoga in particular helps with physical and mental balance, both of which help me to focus on my spiritual balance. I should also mention that much of my spiritual growth and personal mussar is based on the philosophy of Emanuel Levinas, the great 20th Century Jewish philosopher who maintained that we only rise out of our probationary animal state when we put others first. So, such a cynical and self-serving statement seemed oddly misplaced, highly imbalanced, and therefore I found it highly disconcerting.

Certainly it is important for each of us to take care of our minds and our physical health. In fact, Yeshua asserted to his immediate audience and to all future generations to, “Love Your neighbor as yourself.” Though the emphasis is on loving our neighbor, clearly it assumes an appropriate self-love first.  But the key here is appropriate! It seems obvious that Yeshua took for granted that most people have little difficulty with self-concern and involvement. I am also quite sure that he was not advocating the kind of self-love, self-involvement and self-protection advocated by the Me Generation and its slightly more narcissistic spawn. In fact, what I think he is effectively teaching is to get out of yourself so you can find yourself. Or as Levinas might say, “To meet the Other is to have the idea of Infinity.”

Perhaps the most profound statement balancing our responsibility to ourselves and responsibility to others is made by Hillel and recorded for posterity in Pirkei Avot.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" (Avot 1:14)

It is just a little scary to me that the first part of this statement sounds not so vaguely similar to the statement made by the young women at the Yoga studio. The difference is the lack of cynicism. Hillel is not saying that nobody else will care or look out for him.  To my understanding, he is questioning why anyone would value him if he does not place high value on himself. A broader reading of Hillel exposes his keen optimism and high sense of worth of all people as image bearers of Hashem. Thus the second part of the statement, “If I am only for myself, who am I?”  Here Hillel sounds more similar to Levinas, or visa versa. We only truly become ourselves when we regard the value, the needs, and the plight of others. This is who Hashem has created us to be. The face-to-face-encounter with the Other is a privileged phenomenon whereby we are granted the opportunity for self discovery through a truly complementary relationship, one that leads to true spiritual balance.

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