Rabbi Hillel the Elder was an exceptionally wise teacher and religious philosopher from the beginning of the Common Era (d.1BCE in Jerusalem) who left many widely used quotations and aphorisms still highly valued today.
Perhaps his most notable saying was;
"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?" (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14)
Rabbi Hillel draws the distinction in the definition of ourselves between “I”, the inner identity and “Me”, our identity of us by the outside world. This is a complex and subtle concept and indeed Hillel takes it to several even deeper stages.
In our case it seems that his message is to assess what we consider to be our identity then to check it with the opinions of the outside world and that can be a can of worms. It demands a measure of humility.
How true to ourselves is our opinion of ourself? How accurately can we assess our behaviour and attitude? To what extent are we hiding our true identity because it is too difficult or even painful to accept?
There is nothing problematic in this because the outside world will always make a decision on how we behave in the way that it impacts on them.
The crux of the matter is how far that opinion differs from our own assessment and if there is a distinct variance then perhaps it is time for a reassessment of how we behave, our general attitude and our ability to build valid and lasting relationships.
This implies that we are able to make a true and genuine assessment of how we behave and the reaction that it engenders in others. For example are we cheerful, positive and likable or do we tend to look on the dark side of everything, transmit negativity and are judgemental?
More importantly do we really know the impression that we leave with other people and crucially, do we care?
Hillel’s strictures on identity do not imply constant self-examination and self-absorption but they do suggest that if there seems to be a variance between the two then note should be taken of it and above all, action needs to be implemented.
That is, of course, on the assumption that we are interested in other people’s opinions or even care about them.
Certainly we need to plough our own furrow in the world which we inhabit and should not be constantly expecting others to change in accordance with our wishes.
If we have an identity and personality then we have to accept that everyone has as well and it behoves us to accept that fact and understand that everyone is different. The key is to expect little and work to accept differences.
In the end it is a matter of “If not now, when?” and that is the greatest call to action known.
Unless we do take action to change on the assumption that change is necessary then there will be no difference in the way that we interact with others.
If, on the other hand, we examine ourselves, determine that we need to change then the time to do it is now.
Above all, remember we cannot change other people and it is arrogant to assume that we can.
We can only change ourselves and that only should we deem it to be desirable.
It may be a case for a trusted counsellor or mentor to open our eyes to ourselves and it should be someone who is close enough to be true and honest. It can of course be painful and we need to be true and honest to ourselves to accept that we may need to change if that is the conclusion.
It is in our own hands and the time is now.
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