If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, what of me?
And if not now, when?
As part of a recent project, I decided to create series of papercuts based on Pirkei Avot, or "Ethics of the Fathers." This is an ancient compilation of ethical teachings which appear in the Mishnah, the foremost piece of Rabbinic literature.
For the first time in my life, I sat down and read the whole thing. Every word! I'd come across many of the teaching before, of course. I remember starting my days in the second grade at my Jewish day school coloring in mimeographed pages of Rabbi Hillel's words. Many of the sayings feature prominently in Jewish folk wisdom, even today, and here in Israel the most famous words will crop up across popular culture from time to time.
But I'd never read Pirkei Avot from start to finish. In truth, you could spend a lifetime meditating over Pirkei Avot, puzzling through its meanings and interpretations, sifting the wisdom through traditional and more contemporary, personal lenses. There's a lot there.
Look not in the pitcher, but in what it contains.
Some of what's in there might rankle modern sensibilities, such as the admonition not to talk to women too much. Aroo? "This is said even regarding one's own wife -- how much more so regarding the wife of another." Ah. Yeah. It's an old text.
Or the bit about "morning sleep, midday wine, and children's talk" as degrading. I may not be a rabbi, but I hold sleep, wine, and children in extremely high esteem (and probably in that order.) That could go into the 21st century ethics book, perhaps.
There is also an awful lot about God and Torah study, which, depending on who you are and your way of reading, might be illuminating or off-putting. Either way, the message is clear: devote yourself to meaningful work, in service of a higher power. What's wrong with that, right?
It was a good read: Timeless wisdom, enduring wit. Be respectful, be kind. Do not presume to judge others. Be fair. Work hard. Devote yourself to what you believe in.
These are pretty universal principles: Do not be a jerk. Watch what you say. Show a little humility. Live your values, and make them a priority.
Amazing how wisdom resonates over time.
Who is wise? One who learns from every person.
Who is strong? One who controls his impulses.
Who is wealthy? One who is content with his lot.
The world is sustained by three things: By Justice, by Truth, and by Peace.
Say little; do much.