I would venture to guess that most of us would immediately call to mind the famous passage attributed to Hillel the Elder (Pirkei Avot 1:14): If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, … and answer: “when”.
However, at this time of the year, especially in the context of the entire passage, I would like to suggest that it is ours to amend the text and answer, “What?” If not now, what?
The past month has been, for many of us, filled with a plethora of days consisting of praying and eating, and praying and eating, and eating and praying, and eating, and eating and praying, over and over again. They were joyous days. They were days that gave us meaning and significance, life and love. And now? Now that they are over? If there is no more “praying and eating” … If not now? … “What?” What do we do? Where is the “Jewish” in our lives?
To affirm and confirm all that this past High Holy Days and fall festival season was for us, it is important to ask ourselves that question. Were those days ends in themselves? Or, were our observances meant to be the means to even greater ends?
If I am not for myself, who is for me? It is not anachronistic to be concerned about our parochial well-being. Having a clear understanding of the breadth and depth of who we are as Jews is essential to and for our spiritual (and physical) health. The more committed we become to who and how we are as Jews, the more strength we will have to engage with life, as messy as it can be, and make sense out of it … have a mission, vision, and value regarding what our tomorrows can become. That is, in part, what these past days and weeks have been all about: challenging us to strengthen the core of our being.
When I am for myself, what am I? And yet, unless we expand that core so that it impacts on how we engage with the manner in which we are living our lives, then all will be for naught. Fill in the blanks: My observance of Shabbat leads me to? That I am conscious of what I may or may not eat leads me to? That I take time to pray (acknowledge that which is greater than me) leads me to? When we are taught that one mitzvah becomes the source of another, it is in part to remind us that there should be consequences to our actions.
If not now, what? What is the most important part of any of our observance of the most recent Holy Days/festivals? Not what we did then, as much as what we are doing now because of them.
Was pausing to embrace life as it has been lived … looking at how we can be the people that we dream we want to be … hearing the call of the shofar and feeling stirred/empowered to make those dreams come true, meaningful? Was dwelling in a sukkah or shaking a lulav and etrog … pausing and realizing how much we do have for which to be thankful … dancing with a Torah and finding how its truths have added so much to our lives, meaningful? Was (re)connecting with family, friends, our people … pausing to remember those who, though no longer with us, are still so much a part of our lives … feeling the energy of our community of communities, meaningful? Then why walk away from it? Why not carry everything that has been ours with us into the days and weeks and months to come? Why not continue to infuse our lives with mitzvot — the language of “Living Judaism”? Why not answer the question: “If not now?” with a whole lot of “whats”?
Throughout life we are confronted with a myriad of questions, and answers. Some are hard, some are easy. As this New Year has begun, let us hope and pray that we ask whatever questions need to be embraced first, and answer them in kind.
And, if not now? Well, may you have a year of health, happiness, and prosperity asking and finding out!
B’virkat shalom (with a blessing of peace).