Hillel’s famous statement: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” gives us a roadmap for the Ten Days of Repentance, and for the entire year. We need to take responsibility and do our mitzvot; nobody else will do them for us. We don’t have to worry about being alone; if we start the process, G-d will help us over the line. And we have to take advantage of the opportunities presented to us today.
How do we make the most of this time?
We are in the middle of the powerful days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the “Ten Days of Repentance”. This Shabbos is called Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbos of Repentance. It is a time for deep introspection and sincere self-improvement, as we seek to ensure that we start the new year as new people with a clean slate.
Repentance and prayer apply throughout the year, and through them, we have the power to change who we are. But, says the Rambam, it’s at this time of year that they’re especially potent (Laws of Repentance, Chapter 2). As the prophet Isaiah says: “Seek out Hashem when He is close by.” During this time, G-d is particularly close to us, and our repentance and prayers, our efforts to improve ourselves and refine our characters, are more readily translated into results.
The stakes are also much higher at this time of year. The Rambam says we should view the world as hanging in the balance – our merits on one side of the scale precisely counterbalanced by our demerits on the other. In this scenario, the very next thing we do has the power to tip the scale and change everything – for ourselves, for our community, for the entire world (Laws of Repentance, Chapter 3). This is why, says the Rambam, it is customary for all of us to increase our good deeds, our acts of kindness and mitzvot, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, and apply ourselves with increased focus and intentionality in our prayers.
One of the great sages of the 18th century, Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Halevi Landau, known as the Noda B’Yehudah, says that the following famous mishna from Pirkei Avot has particular relevance to the Ten Days of Repentance: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot, 1:14)
According to some commentaries, this mishna refers specifically to the performance of mitzvot. Rashi explains that “if I am not for myself, who will be for me?” is telling us that we need to take personal responsibility for our mitzvot, because no one else can do them for us. The Maharal explains that a mitzvah is unlike material possessions that can be transferred and exchanged between people – with a mitzvah, we have to do it ourselves.
No one can do good deeds on our behalf. They’re not something we can outsource, like a work assignment or a delivery. No one else can keep kosher or Shabbat or give tzedakah for us.
Indeed, the one thing that we truly own in this life are the mitzvot that we do. Ultimately, everything we accumulate during our lives – all of our achievements and titles and wealth – we leave behind. Nothing goes with us to the next world except the good that we did while we were in this world.
Rabbeinu Yona and the Rambam interpret the mishna to mean: “If I do not inspire myself, who will inspire me?” In other words, we have to look within ourselves for inspiration – because inspired living can only be sustainable if it’s not dependent on external forces that are out of our control.
Although it is true that we can be inspired by our rabbis and teachers, Rabbeinu Yona teaches us that this kind of external inspiration is limited. We have to be self-motivated, because if we don’t take responsibility for our own personal and spiritual growth, who will?
Others can assist us in our lifelong quest to fulfil our spiritual potential. Ultimately, though, we need to empower ourselves. Exploring new Torah learning opportunities, or putting more effort into our prayers – whatever it may be, however we go about it, the Ten Days of Repentance are about finding inspiration within ourselves.
On this idea of self-motivation, Rav Yisrael Salanter shares some interesting advice in one of his letters. He suggests making resolutions for the new year in the areas that are easiest for us. The conventional wisdom is that we should work on the areas in which we struggle. But Rav Salanter advises that if we work on our strengths, we are more likely to succeed when it comes to relatively easy, practical steps in mitzvah observance, and this success will generate momentum, pushing us forward in all areas of growth.
Furthermore, we are held more accountable for the easy changes we could have and should have made, because they are well within our reach. Following Rav Salanter’s advice, let us start with the easy things. Let us think of simple, practical changes we can adopt, and move forward from there.
However, while we are responsible for our own actions, we also need Divine assistance. This is expressed in Hillel’s second statement: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Although we have to take the initial steps towards self-improvement, we can’t do the job on our own. In the Midrash, G-d says: “My children, open for me one opening of teshuva [repentance] the size of a needle’s point, and I will open for you doorways through which wagons and carriages can enter.” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:3)
Sometimes this journey feels so daunting – there is so much to do. But in reality, all we need to do is take the first few steps, show some initiative, and we will find the doors to spiritual greatness thrown wide open.
Hillel’s third statement is: “And if not now, when?” Friends – life is short. There’s an interesting Jewish law that a man who visits the cemetery should tuck in his tzitzit out of sensitivity to those who have left this world and no longer have the opportunity to perform mitzvot. (Orach Chaim 23:1) The next world is Gan Eden, a world of perfection, of spiritual bliss. It’s the place where we finally get to enjoy the fruits of our labour – where we finally experience our eternal reward for the mitzvot we carried out while we were alive. But at the same time, there’s a tremendous pain in not being able to achieve anything else; in no longer having the opportunity to do more mitzvot and accumulate more merit. The time to do it, urges Hillel, is right now. At this very moment. While we still have breath in our lungs and energy in our bodies.
Every moment of life is precious, because everything we do in life echoes through eternity. It is the the mitzvot we do in this world that sustain us in the next. Rashi, in his commentary on this mishna, draws a powerful analogy: if you don’t prepare and cook on Friday, you won’t have anything to eat on Shabbos. The next world is like Shabbos, Rashi says. You can’t cook, you can’t work, you can’t create. Whatever you do on “erev Shabbos” – in this world – is what will sustain you in the next.
The mishna is teaching us that we should live our entire lives with the same level of intensity as a Friday, erev Shabbos. On Friday, we try and finish all our work and utilise every moment. Every second is precious as the clock ticks towards the cut-off time, and when Shabbos comes in, there is no more work to be done. Whatever we don’t finish remains unfinished. Says the mishna, our lives should be lived at the same pitch, with the same sense of urgency. Because whatever we don’t get done while we are alive remains undone; we cannot finish it when we go to the next world.
Rabbeinu Yona points out that we can never really make up the time. Tomorrow’s another day, but it’s not today. Tomorrow we can do more mitzvot, but if we missed the mitzvah potential of today, it is lost forever.
At this incredibly powerful time of the year, we feel the urgency of the moment. During these 10 days, more than anything else, we beg Hashem for life. We say: “Remember us for life [the] King who desires life, and write us in the Book of Life.” Life is so precious, because if G-d grants us another year, we can do so many mitzvot with that. We can build eternity.
Through these three statements, the mishna gives us a roadmap for the Ten Days of Repentance, and for the entire year. If I don’t take responsibility and do my mitzvot, nobody else will do them for me. I don’t have to worry about being alone; if I start the process, G-d will help me over the line. And I have to take advantage of the opportunities presented to me today.
As we look towards the new year, we need to take on practical resolutions to improve the different facets of our lives. We need to do this with a sense of urgency, with the awareness of how precious life is. And we can take courage from the fact that if we take a single step, G-d will help us scale great heights.