Rabbi Hillel, one of the greatest teachers in Jewish tradition (110 BCE-10 CE), is the author of the well-known saying: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
This pithy expression asks us to examine our role in the world, where we fit in. Although these words are over 2000 years old, they are compelling today as well. We must be willing to put in the effort to advance ourselves; we should not rely on others to look out for us. At the same time, we should not be so self-centered that we forget our obligations to those around us. Finally, there is a time to philosophize over these matters, and a time to act.
It occurs to me that Hillel’s words do not just address our spiritual or emotional status, but our physical well-being as well. As readers of this blog know, the interplay between body and soul in Judaism is a fascinating one. Our tradition recognizes that body and soul need each other; our souls require a body to “house” them during our sojourn on earth, and our bodies would only be dust (according to Genesis 1) were it not for the soul.
When it comes to our health and fitness, it is up to each of us to make sure that we care for the body given to us by God. We must make sure that we eat properly, exercise, and get appropriate rest; we cannot abuse our bodies and expect someone else (a medical professional, a personal trainer, a magician?) to make it all better. We also run the risk of being so concerned with our own physical wellness that we forget about the needs of others. This is a natural human instinct; we are afraid to give up something of our own lest we need it later. It is not a zero sum game, though; for one person to be healthy does not mean that someone else has to be denied access to healthcare, good food, vaccines, etc. There is enough to go around (at least in the United States) if we have the will to make it so. Finally, we should not put off taking better care of ourselves for later when we think we will have more time, or more energy, or feel more motivated.
This last point is perhaps the most important. A journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. That step may be joining a gym, downloading an app to eat more healthfully, simply going on a walk, or scheduling a mammogram or colon cancer screening. We can come up with hundreds of reasons for why we cannot do this or that when it comes to fitness and health; sadly, we often come to know the danger of putting things off only when it is too late.
If not now, when? Whether I am only for myself or only for others is a moot point if I never act. Hillel asks us to think about ourselves and about others; even more importantly, that thought must move to action. Our health and welfare should always be a priority. Let us treat them as such by not waiting any longer to be the best version of ourselves–emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and physically. If not now, when?