“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” A discussion for developing a practice of self-care



February 28, 2017

The following activity uses Jewish text— both traditional and contemporary— to explore questions pertaining to self-care and how we can best improve our practice. The four questions are inspired by the Ayeka methodology, which helps participants evaluate their current behavior and articulate a realistic step toward an expressed goal.

Shenandoah National Park (Photo credit: Melissa Kansky)


Opening: (5 minutes)

Frame discussion with introduction to famous Hillel quote: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

The teaching presents a hierarchy of responsibility, in which our commitment to ourselves needs to be primary, although not singular. Basically, we cannot be effective community leaders if we are not caring for ourselves. (I know: easier said than done.)

In this session, we will explore how we exhibit our dedication to our work, while also demonstrating responsibility to ourselves. Throughout the session, we’ll look at:

Chevruta Learning (20 minutes) – PRINT 1 page per person

Provide a source sheet with the 10 texts provided below. Ask each chavruta pair to select one text that they will focus on and further discuss. After the chavruta pair has talked about the possible meanings of the text and any other stories thoughts the text produces, ask each person to consider the following questions. This can be designed as a reflective writing exercise, as well.  


Do not worry about tomorrow’s trouble, for you do not know what the day may bring. Tomorrow may come and you will be no more, and so you will have worried about a world that is not yours!

Talmud Bavli, Tractate Yevamot, 63b

In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human!

Hillel, in Pirke Avot 2.6

Despise no one, and call nothing useless, for there is no one whose hour does not come, and nothing that does not have its place.

Shimon ben Azai, in Pirke Avot 4.3

Do not give yourself over to sorrow or distress yourself deliberately. A merry heart keeps a person alive, and joy lengthens one’s days.

Wisdom of Ben Sira, chapter 30

It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.

Pirke Avot 2:21

Days are scrolls; write on them what you want to be remembered.

Bahya Ibn Pakud

There is a well-known story about a Chassidic rabbi named Reb Zusha. His students once asked him about his greatest fear. He replied that he was not worried about living up to Moses or Abraham. Rather, his concern was that, upon his death, God would ask him, “Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?”

–Chassidic tale

We are to live, only for one day a week, as if the world were perfect. For some of us, that is a tremendous leap, especially given the real time state of our world. But the idea is to step back, to gain a crucial distance we lack, in order to see more deeply into the nature of things. Then, to use the day itself as an inspiration that infuses the other six days of the week.

Shelly Fredman, “A Day for Wonder”

True rest doesn’t affect us only when we are resting. It spills over into our weeks, our years, our very lives. The days preceding the day of rest become days of excitement and expectation. Even the most harried workdays become tolerable when you know a day or holy peace is shortly arriving. The days succeeding the day of rest become days of light, too. They shimmer with the afterglow of a revived spirit.

True rest gives us a completely different perspective on all of life’s difficulties. It allows us to heal, to reflect, to give thanks, and to face whatever lies ahead with a renewed sense of calm.

Naomi Levy

If you take on too much, you have taken on nothing.

Talmud Bavli, Yoma 80a

Sharing (5-10 minutes):

Reconvene the group.

Respecting the confidentiality of your chavruta partner, what were some ideas that were shared? What was your text and how did it help you examine self-care?

Concluding (5 minutes)

Go around the circle and ask each person in the group to complete the following sentence:

In order to better care for myself, I commit to…

Melissa Kansky is the director of Jewish Engagement for the Brody Jewish Center, Hillel at the University of Virginia. She has enjoyed three years in Charlottesville, Virginia and most appreciates the area for its good food, live music and proximity to mountains. Most of her spare time is spent hiking in Shenendoah National Park, running and reading fiction. In addition to working for Hillel, Melissa volunteers as a docent at the Fralin Museum of Art. In the summer, she staffs the Marilyn and Sigi Ziering Brandeis Collegiate Institute. (She was a BCI participant in 2014.) Melissa learned about the Ayeka Methodology as an Ezra Fellow. She is a proud member of the Ezra Fellowship’s first cohort. Melissa claims no expertise in the practice of self-care—in fact she was pretty bad at it during her college years. However, an increase in Jewish learning has helped her use the rhythm of the Jewish calendar to identify more opportunities for reflection and pause.