Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? If not now, when?” Everyone will agree that this is great wisdom. How so?
Notice that Hillel’s first statement is “If I am not for myself…” and after that asked, “If I am not for others…” How many of us would have reversed these statements? After all, shouldn’t we always be looking out for others first? When someone says, “Look out for number one”, don’t we see them as selfish, a real misanthrope just thinking of themselves?
Well, perhaps we’ve heard a saying: “Charity begins at home”. Or maybe we’re thinking about the instructions we get when we’re flying in an airplane. We are told that in an emergency, put your mask on first, and then deal with anyone else (usually a child) that requires your assistance. And that’s good advice in any situation.
Consider this: many of us spend a portion of our lives trying to please others. We worry what others think of us. So we appease and please, go out of our way to do, and in the end, wonder why those people aren’t falling over themselves with gratitude to our magnanimity and generosity. Some, in fact, just shrug it off.
Now we’re wondering what else we could have done, what did we do wrong, etc. And we’re feeling emotionally empty and frustrated. We all know the process. We’ve probably all been there at some point in our life.
Perhaps the Staple singers said—or rather sang—it best in the ‘70’s: “If you don’t respect yourself, ain’t no one going to give a hoot!”. And let’s not forget Aretha Franklin belting out: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means for me!”.
You see, if you don’t put your proverbial emotional, respect mask on first, you’re not going to survive; you’re going to suffocate. Consider this irony: by putting others before us, not only do they not gain, but we suffer even further.
People put others first because we all want to be liked and regarded and we think this is the best way to get people to regard us. It doesn’t work. When we look for others’ approval, they’ll always fall short. If for no other reason, than they’re looking for other peoples’ approval as well.
The bottom line is that we have to have our own respect first and foremost. If we don’t have a relationship with ourselves, how can we engage in relationships with others? And that’s the key.
When you have that special relationship with yourself, you don’t need others’ approval. Now let’s be clear about this: the message is not that you don’t need others at all—of course we do. It’s just that when we feel good in our own skin, when we have our own respect, then relationships with others is a pleasure, not an absolute necessity.
Consider our ancestors. Did Abraham walk around Mesopotamia trying to get people to like him? Was Jacob so worried about Laban’s approval that he was torn about staying with him with his family? Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs knew what was important. They may have had their shortcomings, but they knew were secure in their devotion to Torah and Hashem and their families, and that saw them through the tough times.
Think of some of the sins we confess during the High Holidays. We gossip, we oppressed, we dealt treacherously. We have hardened our hearts, we have slandered, we envied, we promoted causeless hatred. Why? Were we upset that people didn’t do what we wanted them to do so we decided to get back at them somehow?
Yes, if we are not for ourselves, who will be for us? We have to devote 5781 to developing a better relationship with the most important person in our lives: us. We have to start on the road of self-sufficiency to feel more secure and calmer about who we are.
When we spend our lives looking for others’ approval, then others have control over us. To what lengths will we go, then, to get others to like and respect us?
This all starts when we become teenagers. Peer-pressure rules. We want to be part of the gang and will give up our own integrity and identity to fit in. The problem is that stays with us all our lives.
5781 is the year that we need to break free. 5781 is the year when we start to be for ourselves. Let us emphasize that we don’t ignore others. After all, if we are not for others, what are we? But if we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?
If not now, when? “When” is 5781. May 5781 be not just a year of good health for all of you, but also a year of good emotional health.