Hillel famously states (in Avot 1:14), אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי, Im Ayn Ani Li, Mi Li, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? U’k’sheAni L’Atzmi, Mi Li, And when I am (only) for myself, what am I? V’Im Ayn Achshav, Aymatai, And if not now, when?”
We usually interpret this as a balanced approach to life, keeping all three principles in mind at the same time. Perhaps we should also see it as describing the two modalities of existence, Olam HaZeh, today’s world as we know it, and Olam HaBah, the enlightened world we know is inevitable.
Although God’s Reality never changes, (אני ה′ לא שניתי (מלאכי ג:ו, “I, God, never change (Malachi 3:6)”, our realities and our perceptions of reality do change. Living, as we now do, in a world where most people have no conception that The Creator m’lo kol ha-aretz kvodo, fills the entire world with His Presence, His totally benign, endless light and energy, where He is Ha-m’chadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’ase b’reishit (daily liturgy), “The One who renews, from His Goodness, every day, the act of creation”, the fact that we, indeed, realize that life is far from a “zero-sum game” or, worse, a “negative-sum game” (that illusion that resources are limited and dwindling while the population, i.e. demand for those resources, is soaring out of control) forces us to live as if that nightmare were true. In other words, even though we know that God’s Shefa, Bounty, is endless, there are many people who are convinced that whatever we have is at their expense and the only path for them to acquire what they want or need is to take it away from someone who has already acquired it. Our vision of the ultimate reality and our confidence in it, however, doesn’t permit us to live above the fray. Throughout human history to date, the Jewish people have had to protect our very lives as best we can as many have perceived us as the obstacle to their own success. In this still-current paradigm, we, therefore, exist in the same state of perpetual strife and warfare as the rest of the world and to survive we must defeat our enemies at every turn. “If I am not for me, who will be for me”, indeed!
However, as we gradually and eventually succeed in truly being Ohr L’Goyim, that Light of wisdom to all the nations, revealing to them that The Creator really has provided for all everyone needs and that rather than stealing or despoiling the wealth of others, they can create and generate their own, we find ourselves moving into Olam HaBah, that world of the future which, indeed, will come one day. No longer necessary to fight and scramble, all mankind can finally realize the truth of “If I am (only) for myself what am I?”. Rather, we can begin to join together in Absolute Unity with The Creator and His Creation, to be at one with all.
Although it’s dangerous, foolish and counterproductive to pretend that we’re farther along the path than we indeed are, our impatience is in order. Our years of suffering (both as the Jewish People, but also, more broadly, as Humanity) have been endless. “If not now, when” shall we at least start to work towards Geula, the ultimate redemption from the very real, but ultimately false nonetheless, world of conflict?