In this column, I answer questions. I don't preach sermons.
Of course, as an ordained rabbi, I am legally licensed to preach long sermons that put people to sleep almost instantly, and in my synagogue I do preach such sermons on the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
However, once a year, I try to briefly summarize my High Holiday sermons for you, my readers, in a way that brings my message out of a purely Jewish context into that place where all of us are trying to find our way to God and each other.
This year, I preached about the most famous saying of the most famous rabbi. Rabbi Hillel lived in the first century. He was one of the first rabbis and was a contemporary of Jesus.
His most famous teaching is a series of three questions: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?", "If I am only for myself, what am I?" and "If not now, when?"
'If I am not for me, who will be for me?'
The obvious answer to this question is that if we are not for ourselves, nobody will be for us. However, the obvious answer is obviously wrong.
There's a long list of people in each of our lives who are for us even when we're not for ourselves. Our parents and friends, teachers and families are all for us, all the time. Most of all, God loves us and is for us even when we are not for ourselves.
The right answer to Hillel's first question is therefore to live not a life of selfishness but a life where we are self aware of the vast web of support and love that will never abandon us. We should all know the names of the people on our "Hillel list" and thank them for reminding us that our blessings always exceed our burdens.
Meister Eckhardt, the medieval German mystic, was right when he taught, "If the only prayer you ever say is "Thank You!" it will be sufficient." The deep secret of Hillel's first question is that ultimately there is no me without a we.
'If I am only for myself, what am I?'
This question is grammatically incorrect both in Hebrew and English. It should be, "If I am only for myself, who (not what) am I?"
The secret answer to this question, and the reason for this seemingly careless mistake, is that if we only care for ourselves we become things, not people. We become more a "what" than a "who."
Helping others is not just good for them; it is good for us. It defines us, expands us and teaches us what Mother Teresa taught, "The fruit of love is service." Only by getting outside ourselves can we find ourselves.
The religious link to serving others is the religious belief that we are all made in the image of God. Without that morally defining belief, the links between us dissolve into nation, class, or just personal hedonism. Religion can divide us, but this belief unites us in bonds of compassion that transcend nation or culture and bring us together before God.
'If not now, when?'
This is my favorite question. It's the best question I've ever heard. My version is, "How much longer do you want to live this way?"
What I love about ethics is that it's the branch of philosophy that's about doing the right thing, not just knowing the right thing. There are enough smart people in the world but not enough good people who can do the right thing now. We face many obstacles to doing the right thing now. Our human frailty, fear and shame block and delay us from timely moral action.
The root of these obstacles is our divided nature. We're both animals and angels. Our animal urges are at war every day with our spiritual urges, and how we resolve this tension defines our lives here on earth. I just lost a lot of weight because I couldn't preach this sermon until I was able to choose life — now.
I pray that each of you will find a way to ask, "If not now, when?" and to give the only answer that will make God smile: now, now, now.
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