By Laura Seymour
Study is always made more fun with song. That goes for adults as well as for children. The rabbis knew this when they created trope to chant the Torah — we understand that Torah isn’t so much “read” as it is “sung.”
In more recent times, Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, understood the power of music and song as well.
Of many of the songs she composed and sung, “Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li,” directly from Pirke Avot 1:14, truly clarifies the meaning of Hillel’s words. Friedman’s catchy tune, combined with the lyrics she posts both in Hebrew and English, allows us to ponder the interesting questions presented in this particular verse. Let’s take a look.
IM EIN ANI LI MI LI (Debbie Friedman)
Im ein ani li mi li. Uch’she ani l’atzmi ma ani
V’im lo achshav eimatai eimatai
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
Hillel was a rabbi and he taught us what to do.
The first part of his lesson said: you must be true to you.
You have to like yourself if you expect that others should.
Having self respect is something special, something good.
Myself is something special it’s the place I have to start.
But Hillel said we must make room for others in our heart.
Love yourself but care and share; don’t lock the others out.
Caring for yourself and others is what life’s all about.
Life is short, the time flies by, and just before you know
Today becomes last week and then along, long time ago.
Hillel said: Do what you must; act now, today, don’t wait!
Decide what is important, do it now, it’s not too late.
If you have a chance, go online and find this song — many artists are on YouTube performing it, which is a nice legacy for Friedman. But even deeper is the legacy Hillel leaves us with the following questions for discussion with you and your family.
- If I am not for myself, who will be for me? What does it mean to take care of yourself first? Why is this the first message given?
- If I am only for myself, what am I? What is our responsibility for others? Why is it important to care for others?
- If not now, when? Why do we put things off for another day? It is important to act today for ourselves and for others.
- And finally: Why did Hillel put these three questions together?
Laura Seymour is director of Camping Service at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas.