Hillel and 'The Brain'

'The Brain' is all about the tension between being not for yourself and being only for yourself.

Until now, I never understood the third part of the famous Hillel saying. It weighs in with "If I'm not for myself, who will be?" and balances off with "If I'm only for myself, what am I?" and then it mysteriously adds "If not now, when?" How does that third piece belong with the other two? All three parts do belong together, as I learned from Erez Tal's latest quiz show, The Brain. Beyond being a quiz show, The Brain is all about the tension between being not for yourself and being only for yourself. The contestants are on teams, and the game continually forces them to balance individual interests against shared interests. Perhaps the purest example is the one-on-one quiz, in which two competitors from opposite teams are asked a rather simple question, and the first contestant who hits the buzzer has the opportunity to answer. The catch is that as the question hangs in the air, the prize for the correct answer gets bigger every second. Opponents cooperate by waiting while the prize swells, but the longer you wait, the more likely it becomes that your opponent will seize the chance to buzz first. As the show's compere, Erez Tal looks like a chastened incarnation of Jerry Lewis's nutty professor. But as the show's creator, he is certainly on to something. The last quiz show Tal conceived, The Vault, was copied in England and ran for three seasons. This one might also be good for export, but I doubt it would have the trenchant meaning elsewhere that it does in Israel. The contestants are grouped into teams, men against women, all roughly the same age. They're at the age when today's Israeli has completed the collective experience of the army, completed the team experience of backpacking and recently started up the career ladder as an individual. What could be more symbolic than the game of nerves at the buzzer, seeking at the same time to extend the period of cooperation but still to be the first to abandon cooperation for competition? It embodies all three parts of Hillel's saying, with the emphasis on "If not now, when?" The society that watches is in the same situation, in a perilous transition between the collectivist philosophy that predominated in Israel's youth and a new individualist philosophy that, in the end, slaps it down and grabs for the reward. Our system of government, for example, is a team system that has repeatedly been overwhelmed by the dominance of one individual or another, who soon enough is brought down by those with whom he failed to cooperate. The Brain includes various exercises designed to produce just such Machiavellian cycles. Old people on the kibbutzim, after laboring for the upbringing and higher education of their neighbors' children, see them fly off to America or elsewhere and are left without resources. Too much altruism, plainly, can be as self-defeating in the end as too little altruism. The Jerusalem Post's Hannah Brown some days ago used the term "groupitis" for the old-time Israeli excess of solidarity. You can see strange signs of it on another popular TV program, A Star Is Born, which is ostensibly all about a competition of individual singers but which insists on presenting the contestants in merry group numbers as if they were pursuing some joint endeavor. And Israel itself is forever confused about how to play the great international game show. Should we be showing what good team players we are, doing all that we can to fit in so that others in turn will support us, or by cooperating will we only lose out to those who more aggressively favor their own interest? And if not now, when? The writer works primarily in technical writing, translation and copywriting.
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