He (Hillel) would say: “If I am not for myself, who will be? (Avot 1:14)”
Though many help us throughout our lives, in the end, we are responsible for ourselves. Others will not, cannot, and are not meant to be responsible in our place.
It is convenient for us to believe that our success hinges on forces and conditions beyond our control. One might get such an impression from the Gemara (Berachot 33b), which asserts that “everything is in the hands of heaven, except for fear of heaven.” The Rambam (Shu”t HaRambam 436) dispels this mistaken impression by explaining that our personal growth is part of the Yirat Shamayim category, which is in our hands. Though Hashem sets the circumstances in the world around us, how we respond and develop ourselves is up to us.
Though other people can help us, our growth does not depend on them. The Seforno sees this as the message of the verse in Devarim (30:11) that describes Torah and teshuvah as “not above you or beyond your reach.” The Seforno explains the verse to mean that we do not need nevi’im (prophets, who are above us) or wise men in faraway lands (beyond us) in order to grow. Even though both offer important guidance, we have all that we need within ourselves and in our reach; growth is in our hands, and we cannot offload it to anyone else.
The support we receive from others is also limited to the time we spend with them. Rabbeinu Yonah reminds us that making good decisions and consistent, continuous (even when we are alone) growth hinges on what we internalize, not on who our friends and neighbors are. We must take full responsibility for ourselves.
Ultimately, no one else will take responsibility for us in our place. We learn this idea from Elazar Ben Durdaya (Avodah Zarah 17a). After deciding to do teshuvah from his initial sinful lifestyle, he asked the mountains and hills, the sky and earth, and the sun, moon and stars to help him. After they responded that they needed to focus on themselves, he realized that “ain hadavar talui ella bi – he had only himself to rely upon.”
After he cried himself to death while curled up in repentance in the fetal position, a bat kol announced that Rebbe Elazar ben Durdaya merited entry into Olam Haba. Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi responded by reflecting upon how, unlike the many who spend their entire lives earning entry into the next world, some do so in one moment – the moment they take full responsibility for themselves and their growth. Not only did his momentous realization earn Rebbe Elazar his portion in the World to Come, it also earned him the title “Rebbe.” He taught us all the great significance of accepting responsibility for ourselves.
Our Unique Importance
Chassidut (Sefat Emet Korach 5647) understands our mishnah as teaching an additional message. It is important that we take responsibility for ourselves because each one of us is independently significant. Hashem created each person differently because He intends a unique mission for each (Sanhedrin 37a). If we rely only upon others to inspire our growth, inevitably our identity will come to reflect their (and not our own) true selves, and we will miss the role we are meant to play.
The Kotzker Rebbe taught: “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I – then I am not I and you are not you. But if I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you – then I am I and you are you.” Each of us is meant to be a unique person playing our individual unique role. Though we ought to learn from and be inspired by others, we need to take responsibility for forging our singular identity and (through this) realizing our unique potential.
May this mishnah inspire us to take full responsibility for ourselves and, through this, realize the mission that Hashem created us to accomplish.