If I Am Not For Myself, Then Who Is For Me?

If I Am Not For Myself, Then Who Is For Me?

This week, our learners looked at the Pirkei Avot 1:14 text: “Rabbi Hillel used to say, If I am not for myself, who is for me?” As well as the story from Shabbat 31a:6, “Another time a non-Jew came before Shammai and said,  ‘I will convert if you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Shammai pushed the non-Jew aside with the ruler that was in his hand.  The non-Jew came before Hillel and Hillel converted him saying, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, that is the entire Torah, the rest is just commentary, now go and study.’”

After hearing the Pirkei Avot text, one of the Garinim kiddos answered right off the bat that if he is not for himself, then his friends are for him! Another commented that it sounds like Rabbi Hillel doesn’t know who will take care of him. A third said decidedly, “What he needs is help, community, and love.” 

We approached Hillel’s statement by first brainstorming what some things are that we can do all by ourselves:

  • I can take my shoes off using just my feet.
  • I can make puppets by myself.
  • I can figure out when I’m too messy and I need to switch materials.
  • I can brush my teeth.
  • I can get the supplies that I need to work on a project on my own.

Who is responsible for taking care of you? What about knowing what you need?

  • Dads
  • My parents
  • Teachers a little bit too
  • I’m responsible for knowing what I need, but other people help me get it sometimes

Why is it important to do things for yourself?

  • Because my parents are working all day.
  • Because I can eat snacks or play or watch TV on my own.
  • Because sometimes no one else is available to do things for me.

What’s it like to do things for yourself?

  • When I do a project or homework on my own I feel good.
  • If no one wants to play with me, though, I can play by myself, but I feel sad.
  • I’m happy to be able to do whatever I want.
  • Sometimes I feel proud.
  • Sometimes it’s lonely.

We concluded that this perspective on the world, one where you’re the only person doing anything for yourself, is just too sad and lonely. Rest assured, this is only the first part of Hillel’s quote, and the rest of it does not imagine a world of such isolated individualism. 

On Tuesday we looked at the second part of Hillel’s assertion: “If I am for my own self only, what am I?” We talked about how being kind to ourselves also brings kindness to others, and that being kind to the earth brings kindness to us!

We wondered what the world would be like if people only cared about themselves?

  • All of the trees could get chopped down, and nothing would be alive without oxygen
  • There would be trash everywhere if we didn’t care about the earth
  • We might not show kindness to our friends or God

We discussed more of the importance of taking care of each other and not just ourselves, and brainstormed ways that we could help take care of other people.

What are some ways other people depend on you?

  • Like if I’m playing on a team, they might depend on me to win the race.
  • I help my mom with cooking.
  • I help pack food for lunch.
  • I make maps for building.

Who do you think we should take care of first: ourselves or others?

  • We need to take care of ourselves first. Like if I don’t take care of myself by getting enough sleep then I’ll wake up grumpy the next day and then I won’t be as kind to other people.
  • We should help others first. We can help them make other choices that are good for them.
  • We should help others first because then after they can help us too.


In Shorashim, kiddos were especially excited to make gifts for themselves that could help them show up for others. Using a wide range of materials, kids created stuffed animals, a [pretend] grill for making kabobs, and a variety of paper cyborg body parts.

We also had the chance to debate the opinions of ancient Jewish scholars Hillel and Shammai. In some cases, such as whether it’s ever okay to tell a “white lie,” we had a variety of opinions like: 

  • Do not ever lie because it’s in the 10 Commandments
  • It’s ok to tell a lie if you’re in danger
  • It’s ok to tell a white lie because it’s not hurting anyone
  • Don’t ever lie. Period.

Kids also got to write comics or “advice columns” in response to different scenarios, with some advice on things like how to stand up to a bully. 

A rich topic of discussion early in the week was the difference between treating your neighbor as you want to be treated and treating your neighbor as they treat you. While the distinction was confusing at first, we got to talk through some real time examples of how kids could respond to people around them who were doing things that they did not like.

On Wednesday, we listened to the book Where Do I Live, and considered different ways to answer that question, which ranged from “Philadelphia” to “The Universe” or “The Milky Way”. Our kids took in the book precociously, pointing out Philly on all of the maps in the book, and offering a well-reasoned critique of their definition of a playground.

We considered things we liked about where we live, in which answers ranged from:

  • A tree
  • My family
  • My stuffed animal
  • My basketball friends
  • Me!

On Thursday, kiddos had the chance to role play disagreeing lovingly with another person. Some scenarios included disagreeing on which sports team is better, what type of sandwich is superior, and whether pop-its or putty is a better fidget. 

Nitzanim explored the story of when a non-Jew approached Hillel and Shammai and kiddos had a go at explaining how their days went while standing on one foot. After doing our check-ins on one foot and reflecting on this story, we compared the different responses of Hillel and Shammai, and discussed boundary-setting.

Some reflections:

  • Our learners, while examining this story, did not feel that either Rabbi was wholly welcoming to the non-Jew who had approached them. We considered the boundaries both Shammai and Hillel set, Shammai in not answering the man at all (perhaps he didn’t want to sound fooling scrambling to explain the whole Torah in such a brief time) and Hillel in giving such a brief summary but insisting on additional study.
  • Our learners identified a few different kinds of boundaries people can set! Physical boundaries which tell you where you can go and be, like the edges of a park or the end of a street. Mental boundaries for yourself are the guidelines we set around things we may prefer not to think about or not too much! Finally, we discussed setting conversational boundaries with other people, such as asking a friend not to talk about a sensitive topic.

We also took a look at the Pirkei Avot text and through our conversation, kiddos were able to find meaning and clarity in this somewhat mystifying wording.

Some insights:

  • Being “for yourself” means doing things for yourself or rooting for yourself
  • If you are “for yourself only” this is excluding anybody else around you, possibly you are acting selfishly instead of being generous
  • Snacking, wearing a mask, and learning new things are things we can do for ourselves
  • If you’re not going to change it now, when will you? We may ask ourselves this when we must stand up for ourselves and others

On the topic of change and doing things for others, kiddos looked within and figured out what superpowers they already have that make them uniquely able to help others! These included:

  • Being kind
  • Listening to new ideas
  • Being smart and coming up with solutions

Nitzanim has gotten a start on planning for our Showcase! Using inspiration from online and our own siddurim, our kiddos are bringing bright ideas to the table. We’re excited to see how we progress. 

We can’t wait to see what’s in store for next week as we dive deeper into what it means to show up for someone else and how to build supportive relationships.

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