The Rabbi’s Question

If I am not for myself, who is for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

These questions posed by Rabbi Hillel have tripped me up more than a time to two in my life.  In fact, I can think of few questions that are as vexing.  My sense of self, who I think I am, is constantly called into question by my experiences and by the people who I let influence my life.

I remember so clearly when I first confronted these questions.  I stood before Judge Robert T. Long in juvenile court in September of 1963 for a sentencing hearing on my conviction for auto theft.

Before rendering a sentence, Judge Long posed these questions:

“Pat Moriarty, who are going to decide to be?  Are you deciding now to take up a life of crime?  Are you choosing to associate yourself with other criminals?  I need to know your decision first so that I can deliver mine.  These are important questions because your answer will determine for me how I will sentence you.”

Judge Long was placing my fate in my hands; he was asking me to participate in my own sentencing.

  • Who would I choose as guiding influences in my life?
  • What path would I decide to walk?
  • Who did I plan to become?

I was stunned by his question.  At age 14 I didn’t realize I had any decision in the matter.  I looked over to my mother for help.  How should I answer?  She just shook her head; she would be no help.  It would be my decision alone.  Judge Long was asking me to become the co-creator of my own life.

I looked at Judge Long and said I wanted the opportunity to start over.  I wanted set out on a different path.  I understood that since my dad had died I had gotten off on the wrong course and I intended to change direction.

Truth be told, as a 14-year-old I felt trapped in a world over which I had no control.  I felt I was torpedoing down a raging river to an entirely unknown destination.

Judge Long decided to throw this confused and troubled boy a life preserver, with the simple message, “You can decide to pull yourself out of the river.”  I had a decision to make on the direction of my life, a decision I’d need to make each day for the rest of my life.

Maybe some of you can identify the moment when you first understood yourself to be co-creator of your own life, the moment when you first understood you were not simply a victim of circumstance, when you first understood you had a vote on your future.

When Judge Long put the question to me, I knew that if I didn’t respond appropriately, I might very well find myself locked up in a juvenile detention center for my freshman year of high school.  It was the difference between whether I would attend Seattle Prep or not.  This became a defining moment for me, and one that I think points to a universal truth:

I had no idea in September of 1963 that these questions posed by Rabbi Hillel many centuries ago would be with me every day of my life.

“If I am not for myself, who is for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

Just a thought…


This post was originally published October 30, 2016.

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