Self Advocacy and Empathy
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:
Pirke Avot 1:14 teaches: “He [also] used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when?”
This famous teaching of Hillel is succinct and powerful. There are many interpretations.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” One thing I appreciate about Judaism is that it understands reality and also the human character. We are not supposed to be martyrs or selfless. It is really important to stand up and advocate for ourselves. This is an essential skill that parents teach their children and camp is a great place for campers to practice self advocacy. If we don’t have self respect, don’t speak up and don’t believe in ourselves, then it is hard for us to expect anyone else will. At camp we should encourage and give everyone an opportunity to be for themselves.
“But if I am only for myself, what am I?” The second piece of this Mishna is critical. We should care for ourselves, but we also need to realize that our rights and feelings must take into account other people’s rights and feelings. We cannot only be concerned with getting what we want. Sometimes we do have to sacrifice because someone else’s needs are greater than our own. If we are not ever willing to do that, then we are selfish people and we would not be worthy of being a part of a community.
“And if not now, when?” I have always felt that this part of the teaching stands alone. I didn’t really understand why it is directly connected to the first two teachings. As a general teaching, I think it is important not to postpone improving yourself, doing the right thing, saying you’re sorry, helping someone in need and so forth. If we put it off, it is likely it may never happen. And in that sense it does connect to the other teachings because being a self advocate and caring for others are things we should improve on immediately.
Empathy and urgency are great values. To truly be an empath, we need to actually both care about ourselves and understand where the other person is coming from. Urgency to do good should drive us to make the best use of every day. At camp, where the days are limited, that urgency should motivate us to constantly grow and do great things.