Who am I? by Rabbi Josh Kahn


During the days of Sefirat HaOmer, our focus becomes strengthening our interpersonal relationships. This is one of many reasons given for why we have the practice to learn Pirkei Avot during this period between Pesach and Shavu’ot, a Masechet that highlights Middot development. Do the Parshiyot we read this week contain wisdom and guidance in developing our outlook on how we treat each other?

        Rav Shimon Shkop, a great Rabbinic figure who passed away in 1939, develops in his introduction to the Sefer Sha’arei Yosher a fascinating approach that links Parashat Kedoshim with caring for our friends. In the Pasuk, "VeAhavta LeRei'acha KaMocha," "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (VaYikra 19:18), the way we are to treat others is phrased through the things we like. Why doesn’t the Torah simply tell us how to treat one another?

        The answer to this question is developed based on a puzzling Mishnah in Pirkei Avot. The Mishnah states, "Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li UCheSheAni LeAtzmi Mah Ani" "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself, what am I?" (Pirkei Avot 1:14) The two clauses of this Mishnah seem to be contradictory. The first clause focuses on self preservation, whereas the second phrase seems to denigrate those who are self centered. How can both be true?

        Rav Shkop suggests an interesting idea. People are created with a natural self interest. This is apparent in the attitude of babies who focus solely on their own needs. As children grow and develop, we teach them to realize that there are other people with other needs and that the world does not solely revolve around them. While the Torah recognizes our need to care of ourselves, it also challenges us to take this innate feeling and channel it to others. We should care for others the same way that we care for ourselves. How do we achieve this lofty goal? We must follow the recipe of the Mishnah. As the first phrase tells us, we first must care for ourselves. However, the second clause warns us that if our “selfish” needs are directed only at our own needs, we are accomplishing nothing. Rather, we must broaden the definition of "I." The “I” should encompass family, community, and ultimately, all of Am Yisrael and even humanity.

        This approach can be used to explain why the Torah uses the words, "VeAhavta LeRei'acha KaMocha" when describing what our attitude toward others should be like. We should love others as we love ourselves; we should channel our natural self interests toward others.

        This message is also communicated through an amazing story recounted by Rav Paysach Krohn in his book Spirit of the Maggid (p. 215–217). The story is told of an Israeli soldier named Yehudah who was patrolling the border. While alone on guard duty, Yehudah was shot. An Israeli civilian named Shmuel who was driving by noticed the soldier lying on the side of the road and immediately pulled over to examine him. Shmuel noticed that Yehudah still had a pulse, even though Yehudah was unconscious. Shmuel picked up Yehudah, put Yehudah in his car, and sped off to the nearest hospital, calling to ensure that the hospital would be ready for the arriving patient. When they arrived at the hospital, a team of doctors was waiting for Yehudah and quickly administered the care he needed. After a half hour, the situation seemed to be under control and the hospital staff was able to reach Yehudah’s parents. Seeing that he was no longer needed, Shmuel quietly left the hospital. After two weeks, Yehudah was discharged from the hospital and his parents brought him back to their home in Ashdod. But the story does not end here.

        There was a void for Yehudah’s parents. Someone had saved their son’s life and they wanted the opportunity to properly thank this hero. They asked everyone in the hospital but were unable to find any information regarding the mysterious person. Running out of ideas, Rachel, Yehudah’s mother, hung up a sign in the Makolet (grocery) she owned asking for any information regarding the unknown hero. Approximately two weeks later, a woman named Sarah was visiting friends in Ashdod where she used to live before moving to Ra'anana. She happened to go into Rachel’s Makolet to pick up some groceries, and there, Sarah noticed the sign. Sarah immediately thought about her own son who mentioned that he had brought a wounded soldier to the hospital. Could her son be the hero this woman was looking for? Sarah approached Rachel and asked who she could speak to about the sign. Rachel said that she was the person to speak to and offered for them to sit down together in her small Makolet office. After they sat down, Sarah recounted the details she had been told by her son and each detail matched up perfectly with the story that Rachel knew. Rachel was amazed at the Divine Providence that had brought Sarah into her Makolet. Rachel cried and told Sarah that she wanted to offer a special reward to Sarah’s son for saving Yehudah’s life. Sarah cut her off, though, and began asking questions about how “old Yehudah” was and where he was born. Rachel at that point became very confused.

        Sarah looked at Rachel, who was still crying, and asked Rachel if she recognized her. Wiping away her tears, Rachel tried placing Sarah’s face but couldn’t. Sarah quickly explained: “My Shmuel is about half a year younger than your Yehudah. I was pregnant in the hospital at the same time that you had just given birth. My pregnancy was difficult and complicated, and I was considering having an abortion. I didn’t know you, but that didn’t stop you from offering me advice. As you held your new baby in your hand, you explained to me how important it was for me to hold onto my baby. Your words convinced me and I had a baby boy whom we named Shmuel. You saved my baby, and now he saved yours.”

        This story beautifully illustrates the idea of Rav Shkop that we are all connected. Our actions, no matter how small, not only impact others but may come back later to impact as well.

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