There is a fascinating philosophical debate regarding free will: do we choose our thoughts and actions, or is everything about us predetermined (by G-d, fate, genes, childhood experiences, and/or societal influences). While psychology cannot conclusively determine which side is correct, interesting research has been conducted as to the psychological consequences that flow from our beliefs regarding free will. People who believe that they act under their own volition and agency, tend to have higher academic success, better job performance, lower stress levels, and higher life satisfaction than those who believe they do not have free will. This is likely because when we believe we have free will, we have a higher sense of personal control over situations, which leads us to take more personal responsibility for our actions (see Gooding et al., 2018).
Pirkei Avot and its commentators generally endorse an ethos of self-determination. We have free will and we can and should be agents of change when it comes to our own personalities. Yes, there are external factors that influence who we are and our current situation – whether it be G-d, our parents, neurochemicals, or the stock market; yet, after all that external input, we are still in control of our behaviors. In an interesting application of this idea, Hillel famously remarks “If I am not for me, who will be for me?” (Avot 1:14). There are dozens of explanations of Hillel’s cryptic lesson. One relevant to our current discussion is that of Rabbi Yosef Alashkar (Mirkevet Ha-Mishna, 16th century), who writes that Hillel teaches us about the importance of free will. There is no other being or force – human or divine – that forces us to choose the good or bad path. We all have free will to choose what path to take. It is up to each one of us to decide.
Rambam’s interpretation of Hillel’s maxim supplements Rabbi Alashkar’s gloss by highlighting the connection between free will and personal responsibility in the attainment of virtues, which according to Rambam is the purpose of Pirkei Avot. In Rambam’s discussion of free will in his introduction to Avot (Shemona Perakim, chapter 8), he writes, “the acquisition of virtues and vices is entirely in the power of man, in consequence of which it is his duty to strive to acquire virtues, which he alone can acquire for himself, as the Rabbis in their ethical sayings in this very tractate say, (Pirkei Avot 1:14) ‘If I am not for myself who will be for me?’” Hillel, according to Rambam, is emphasizing that we all have free will to improve ourselves and acquire virtues, and therefore we all have the personal responsibility to motivate ourselves and follow through. We cannot shirk our responsibility to improve ourselves or put the blame or burden on others.
Yet, after focusing on personal responsibility, Hillel transitions to social responsibility: “When I am for my own self, what am I?”
When Chris Peterson, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, was asked to summarize the essence of the field, he responded “Other people matter.” One of the core character traits that Peterson and his colleague Martin Seligman identified as essential for flourishing is “social responsibility.” Social responsibility generally refers to extending beyond personal wants or needs, being accountable for one’s actions and decisions as they relate to others, abiding by a sense of duty to act, feeling moral obligation, and desiring to contribute to the greater good (Wray-Lake & Syvertsen, 2011).
Navigating the space between taking care of the needs of the self and assisting with the needs of others is often fraught with difficult decisions. Some people are more prone to prioritize the self, and some are more likely to sacrifice for others.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks relates a conversation he had with the Catholic historian Paul Johnson (author of “A History of the Jews”), who noted that cultures are generally good at either focusing on the individual (like the secular West today), or the collective (communist Russia or China). One of the greatest achievements of Judaism, according to Johnson, has been to strike that rare, difficult, and delicate balance between the two. In essence, Rabbi Sacks notes, encapsulating Hillel’s maxim in historical terms.
Rabbi Shimon Shkop presents a powerful paradigm for how to reconcile the challenge of self and others, suggesting that the secret lies within our conceptualization of our ani – our sense of self. There can be little debate that the self needs to be prioritized. The question is how expansive our view of the self is. We can have a self-absorbed ani, which only focuses on our own needs. Yet, we can also expand our sense of self to include others. We can start by incorporating family members and friends, and then continually expand to the inclusion of the community, the Jewish people, and then to the entirety of creation.
This idea, he contends, is embedded within Hillel’s teaching: “If I am not for me, who will be for me?” teaches that “It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for his welfare.” Yet, “simultaneously, he must also strive to understand that “when I am for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see, then his “I” – what is it? It is shallow and inconsequential. However, if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, seeing that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth.”
Rabbi Shkop’s description relates to Arthur and Elain Aron’s self-expansion model of relationships, which conceptualizes the formation of relationships as having the sense of self expand to include the identity and needs of others. In relationships that are constructed this way, helping the other is in a sense helping the self, and helping the self is also helping the other. As the other gets incorporated in the sense of self, there is potentially less tension and conflict in determining the proper balance between prioritizing self-versus helping others.
As is clear from Hillel and Pirkei Avot more broadly, we are responsible for our own growth, and we must serve others. To the extent that we can work on expanding our sense of self to include others, these two will not be competing ideas, but one overarching goal towards the betterment of self and society.