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Poster Commentary
"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?"Rabbi Hillel (Pirke Avot 1:14)
Poster design:Daniel Bennett Schwartz


by Joseph Telushkin

This teaching from the Ethics of the Fathers is one of seven teachings by Hillel in this, the most famous volume of the Mishnah. No other rabbi is quoted more than four times, a testament to both his wisdom and his popularity.

Here, Hillel captures our attention by posing two questions, each intended to articulate a paradox. The first challenges those of us who believe that piety and goodness demand an attitude of absolute altruism pursued at the expense of our own interests. In other words, to be a good person, don’t think about your own interests. But, as Hillel suggests, if a person is not concerned with his own needs and well-being, why should he expect others to be? For example, if a sick person makes no effort to treat his illness, is it reasonable to expect others to devote themselves to treating it?

Such a level of self-sacrifice seems pointless. After all, the biblical verse that explicitly commands “love your neighbor as yourself” implicitly commands us to love ourselves as well.

But don’t be only for yourself. If you are only for yourself, you cease to be a real human being, and you become no longer a who, but a what. Don’t be a what, Hillel reminds us, be a who!

Finally, think about how the challenge offered in these words, “If not now, when?” applies in your life. What is something that you know in your heart you have been postponing but should do now?

Whatever the issue, think about it now, even if for only half a minute. Think about it tomorrow, again for just half a minute. Even if you don’t undertake to make the change, at least you will know what changes you need to make when you are ready.

And if you do start to make the change now, who knows where it will lead? So much wisdom in four words!

Conversation Guide


These famous teachings of Hillel offer the key to leading a balanced and fulfilling life. The commentary divides Hillel’s teachings into two lessons: first, to strike a balance between attending to one’s personal needs and those of others; and second, never to miss an opportunity by postponing or delaying action. 

What people can you point to fulfill “if I am not for myself,” but overlook “but if I am only for myself”? What about the reverse?

Do you know people who successfully balance these two perspectives as Hillel charges?  How do you manage the balancing act between caring for your own needs and those of others?

Hillel’s second statement, “if not now, when?” urges us not to procrastinate. Is there something you have been thinking about starting, but have not started? What would help you take the first step?

Other posters and quotations also deal with the challenge of the individual versus the community. How does this quotation compare with, “a community is too heavy to carry alone” or “a human being is like a letter of the alphabet: to produce a word, it must combine with another”?



Each image calls out to us to examine it, to note our thoughts and feelings, and relate these impressions to the quotation. Often clues in the artwork suggest meaning and invite interpretation.

Artist and illustrator Daniel Bennett Schwartz paints a multilayered portrait to depict Hillel’s teachings.

How does the image present the quotation? Was this how you interpreted the quotation without the image?

Is the entire quotation illustrated in the painting, or only part of it?

How are the faces placed in the painting? Is the focus on one or more faces? Why do you think the artist illustrated the quotation in this way?

Does this painting offer a different reading of the quotation from that explicated in the commentary?  Can you reinterpret the quotation in light of the image?


Copyright© 2012 Harold Grinspoon Foundation

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Masters Series©2012, Daniel Schwartz, Quote: Rabbi Hillel, Pirke Avot 1:14,

Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA