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    If I am here

    The sayings of Hillel are often catchy and always complex.

    An example is found in the Talmud (Suk. 53a). Articulating his happiness at participating in the observances of Sukkot, he said, “If I am here, everyone is here”.

    It can’t be a declaration of selfishness or egotism, suggesting that nobody else matters, since the same Hillel said, “If I am only for myself, who am I?” (Pir’kei Avot 1:14).

    Something to do with the whole community must have been on his mind, but what?

    The key words are clearly “I” and “everyone” – but in what sense?

    Hillel’s words may have been the origin of the famous statement of the Kotzker Rebbe, “If I am I, then you are you – but if I am not I, then you are not you”.

    Enshrined in the word “I” is my distinctiveness, my uniqueness, my personality.

    If I run away from what I am in search of a different background, a different way of life, I am no longer me.

    If I want to abdicate from the real facts, to escape my limitations, to say, as children sometimes say to their parents when they resent something they are told, “I wish I had a different mother and father”, “I wish I had a different family”, it is like a lulav saying, “I wish I were an etrog”, or an etrog saying, “I wish I were a lulav”.

    It is like a leopard wanting to change its spots.

    Hillel may be telling us, “You can only be you: I can only be me.”

    Society is made up of people who have their own identity, their own place, their own role. They can make minor adjustments and improvements, but unless they show a basic degree of self-acceptance there can be no stability in society.

    If I and you are each ourselves and in our right place in the world, then I am I and you are you.

    My late father was an auctioneer for a while and his auction catalogues bore the words, “The goods are sold with all faults if any”. That’s who we all are – individuals with all faults if any.

    If I am here, the real I, then you are here, the real you… and so is everyone.

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