There is a tradition that, each Shabbat between the Festivals of Passover and Shavuot, a chapter from the small section of the Talmud known as Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, is studied. One of the most famous teaches:
Hillel used to say:
If I am not for me, who will be for me?
And when I am for myself alone, what am I?
That one statement reminds us how important it is to strike a balance between self-interest and selflessness.
If I do not take care of myself, my family or my community I cannot expect anyone else to.
But if I am only concerned with myself, my family or my community and I do not concern myself with my obligations to do good in the world I have only done half the job.
I have always loved this quote as I believe it captures one of the central tenets of Judaism- the importance of balance. It is not “either look after yourself or others” but rather “look after yourself AND others.” It is why the language of so many of our prayers moves between the singular and the communal- often within the same prayer or even verse.
I was studying this teaching the other day when the UPS truck pulled up to my house. Inside the box were a few cloth face masks I had ordered. As much as it might seem to be a stretch, I immediately saw a connection between the two.
Pirke Avot instructs us to worry about ourselves AND about others. That’s a message that runs counter to much of American culture and our modern focus on individual rights and self-interest.
Face masks also run counter to American culture. Allow me to explain what I mean.
When I go out wearing a cloth face mask I’m not doing so for myself. At best, my cloth face mask offers me a tiny bit of protection. But in a situation where I might be asymptomatic but positive for COVID-19 my face mask will protect you from me while your face mask will protect me from you. Being able to protect myself is dependent on your willingness to protect me. There is a level of mutual responsibility that is required if face masks are to be effective.
At a time when we are seeing more acts of kindness and selflessness than at any time I can recall, the face mask is symbolic of a cultural shift and reminds us what is possible when we reaffirm our commitment to a social contract.
My hope is that, when this pandemic is over, one of the lessons we will have learned is the very lesson Hillel taught two thousand years ago- that both concern for others and concern for ourselves matter and the art of living fully is striking the right balance between the two.