If Not Now, When?

As our community, state, country and the world grapple with the Coronavirus and its destructive ramifications on multiple fronts, I am drawn to the wisdom of one history’s greatest teachers. Over two thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel taught a lesson that has never been more relevant and powerful:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?

Countless commentators far more educated than I have, over the centuries, interpreted these words; however, I find they are simple enough for everyone to understand and internalize. For me, right now, in the midst of this crisis, these principles resonate:

  • We must take care of ourselves BUT we can’t only take care of ourselves.
  • I don’t want to be the kind of person who has the ability to help others during a crisis and doesn’t.
  • There is a call to action. We cannot procrastinate. People are hurting and in desperate need right now. We must do all that we can.

As if this famous teaching was not enough, Rabbi Hillel had another prophetic saying that is equally timely:

Don’t separate yourself from the community.

A commentary in the Talmud summarizes this quote perfectly. “When the community is suffering, one may not say, ‘I will go to my house, eat and drink, and I will be fine’” (Ta’anis 11a). I believe a current and commonly used refrain encapsulates this wisdom – WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.

Today, our communities, large and small, are facing unprecedented and unexpected challenges in many areas. While the health consequences and their corresponding burdens are disastrous, the economic implications of trying to contain and thwart the virus is wreaking unfathomable destruction on millions and millions of people. Jobs and businesses have evaporated, without warning, in the blink of an eye. Individuals and families are struggling for the basic necessities – food and shelter – as they grapple with what tomorrow might bring.

In our lifetimes, we have never seen a moment like this — one in which the needs and future uncertainties permeate every walk of life and place on earth. The opportunities to provide assistance are widespread and seemingly never-ending. It’s not about only donating funds or goods, but volunteering to share your time and manpower to the greatest extent possible. Nothing is too small because we are all in this together.

For many philanthropists, including our foundation, pre-established philosophies guide our annual commitments and shape our long-term charitable activities. While wonderful and necessary, these should be postponed — or maybe even thrown out — in moments of true crisis like the one we now face. Where possible and prudent, hopefully these resources can be diverted to the pressing emergency at hand.

As we contemplate what to do in response to the COVID-19 crisis, we have elected to participate in a several categories that require urgent attention within our local communities:

  • Basic safety net essentials such as food and shelter;
  • Assistance for small businesses;
  • Medical research and care.

In each community affected, there are likely numerous organizations working to quickly address these types of needs and others. For example, the Seattle community rapidly formed and raised funds for All In Seattle to provide community members with an easy and comprehensive platform for helping their neighbors.

Previously, I wrote an article about how, according to ancient Jewish teachings, the highest degree of charity is that of one who empowers someone to take care of themselves by extending a loan, helping them find employment or entering into a business partnership. As I think about the months and years ahead, this form of charity will be more essential, appreciated and utilized than ever.

Here’s the bottom line: We are all in this together and must do what we can RIGHT NOW.