“If I am not for myself, who is? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”-Hillel
This famous quote appears in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers, 1:14), and while there are many interpretations, I would like to suggest that its meaning is actually a terse parallel to our understanding of Moses’ speech in Va’etchannan(Deut. 4:1-40), where he discusses levels or performing the service of God (https://thinkjudaism.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/dvar-torah-for-vaetchannan-instruction-and-encouragement-2/)
As we said, Moses urges the people of Israel to keep the mitzvot, telling them they must care about their own livesi, that it is better to seek wisdom and praise for itii than to live just for the sake of livingiii, and that even above seeking wisdom is the service of God that is performed out of a loving loyalty, which is called “cleaving”iv
With the goals of Moses in mind, I think we may now see that Hillel’s 3 short questions will each help to bring us to a higher level of Avodat HaShem (Service of God).
“If I am not for myself, who is?”: Hillel tells us that we must love ourselves enough to be “for” ourselves, since there is no-one else who would or could do this on our behalf. This is addressed towards those who do not even care for themselves enough to be “for” themselves. While most of us find it obvious that we have to care about our lives, Hillel tells those who don’t understand this that it is the place to start, in a parallel to Moses’ urging to love ourselves as God loves us in Deut. 4:32-40.
Once we begin to care about ourselves and lead our own lives, we may realize that being in control means we are each responsible for the way we act and the direction our lives are going in. This is a parallel to v. 5-31,where Moses urges us to keep the mitzvot out of being “for” ourselves.
“And when I am for myself, what am I?”: However, Hillel tells us, having chosen to be responsible for ourselves, we are not to choose to live purely for our own benefit, since what would we be then? Someone who lives and serves God only for his own well-being has brought about the paradoxical situation where his mitzvot are directed towards worshiping himself! This is far from the best life we can choose.
Hillel instructs us that if a person worships herself instead of God, she must ask herself “what am I?” and be unsatisfied by the answer. This will bring her to work towards the goal of serving God out of a loving loyalty, and to “cleave” to Him, as Moses tells us in v.1-4.
“And if not now, when?” Of course, once we have decided to strive towards the service of God in a way that is for the very sake of serving Him, it is altogether another thing to actually begin this process, since it is exceedingly difficult. Hillel thus encourages us to begin right away.
In short, Hillel’s questions do not seek answers, since the answer to 1) would be “no-one”, to two we would answer “lowly”, and to three, we would not answer at all, since it is a rhetorical question. Rather, he is a looking for a reaction to each of them, which will hopefully bring us to keeping the mitzvot in the best ways that we can.