Judaism: Day 16 – Jewish YOLO

Today’s Mishna states:

 He used to say: if I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

This passage speaks to the importance of intrinsic motivation, meeting your obligations, and acknowledging the passing of time. Below is a summary of the points the rabbis make on each line

If I am not for myself , who will be for me?

  • Internal motivation is more powerful than external influences
  • Physical needs (the need to eat, sleep, procreate, etc.) will always seem urgent, which makes it easy to neglect our spiritual needs
  • You don’t control many things, but you can control how disciplined you are in the pursuit of a spiritual life
  • Greater privilege confers greater responsibility; those who have more or come from a good family must live up to greater expectations than those who have less

And if I am for myself, what am I?

  • Your obligations are greater than what you can really hope to achieve
  • Even though you can not meet all your obligations, your level of effort matters
  • If you are only concerned with your physical needs, and neglect the spiritual, what’s the significance of your life?
  • Man must make his own spiritual journey, but he must not ignore the spiritual welfare of his fellow Jews

And if not now, when?

  • Life is short, you can only provide for the soul in the present. Once you die, you can no longer cultivate spirituality
  • It’s important to work at developing your character at a young age, as your habits become more immutable as you grow older
  • People have a tendency to procrastinate. You might be just as busy tomorrow as you  are today. Therefore, you should act now to make spiritual progress as today will be soon be forever lost.
  • Every individual is unique; no two individuals in the course of history will have the exact same mission with the exact same personality. It’s up to you to achieve your mission.
  • Individual missions, however, can only be enacted through the community or nation at large
  • Be sensitive to each passing moment. “If I do not seize the opportunity now and imbue the moment with its particular meaning, the opportunity might not be there when I am ready.”

The commentary is beautiful. On the surface, it looks like a Talmudic affirmation of “YOLO,” (You Only Live Once); it’s not. YOLO is about creating an excuse for self-indulgence.  The only similarity with the Mishna is that they both acknowledge the passing of time.

The rabbis wanted for everyone to realize how quickly time passes and to take advantage of every moment to develop their character and grow spiritually. Otherwise, we’re not too different from animals, which are only concerned with their physical needs.

It’s even more important to remind ourselves of our own mortality today as it is incredibly easy to waste time. I can watch hours and hours of Netflix at a time, and to what end?  Am I better off after watching House of Cards than I was before?

So, yes, YOLO is important to remember, but instead of partying, we should think about how we can best use our limited time to cultivate our spirituality.

Or maybe Portlandia got it right, partying is the solution: