By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva
He would say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Avot 1: 14)
According to Rabbenu Yona, this mishna warns against two major sources of underachievement: dependency and procrastination. Many wait for a mentor to provide intellectual excitement or for a peer to encourage acts of benevolence. Yet the urging of others only provides temporary aid; authentic and lasting growth comes from within. Instead of consistently waiting for friends and teachers to inspire us, we need self – motivation to generate our efforts. Of course, this does not nullify the value of exposing oneself to helpful others; it just directs the ultimate responsibility to ourselves. “If I am not for myself, who is for me?”
On the other hand, focusing on individual responsibility can lead towards overemphasis on personal success. Having taken responsibility, we may strut about with excessive pride. Therefore, the mishna cautions against self – aggrandizement. And when I am for myself, who am I?’ A healthy sense of humility helps put our accomplishments in perspective.
The final part of the mishna challenges us not to delay our spiritual and moral responsibilities. Rabbenu Yona mentions four problems with procrastination. One excuse for waiting leads to another and the individual may never get to open that sefer or promote this charitable cause. For example, each year I think that I will commit to praying with greater concentration but the hoped for change has not yet occurred. Moreover, each day matters and waiting means precious time irretrievably lost. Thus, even when we eventually get to the mizva, the lost time remains problematic. In addition, we cannot easily alter patterns established through years of repetition. Every year of delay makes the change more difficult since the habitual behavior becomes progressively more ingrained. Finally, Rabbenu Yona notes that repentance in old age, born from declining desire and fears about posterity, fails to match the worth of a younger teshuva. A delay can also mean a missed opportunity since the growth at a later stage does not equal what could have been. In sum, delaying may become permanent, means missing opportunities both from the perspective of lost time and due to the changing nature of the opportunities, and makes the ultimate change much more difficult to achieve. We have good reason to act with urgency and immediacy. “If not now, when?”
Perhaps the dangers of dependency and procrastination share a common theme: waiting for some external factor to promote change. That factor may be either another person or the passage of time. Hillel teaches us that looking at the calendar or at a neighbor both avoid looking within.