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Beshalach 5781: Selflessness and Selfishness

Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! For many years now I have had an ongoing disagreement with one of my sons about the nature of man. He insists that everyone acts out of complete selfishness and that it is the primary catalyst for all of humanity. In his worldview, altruism is merely something people do to gain the pleasure of feeling better about themselves.

For my part, and from a philosophical perspective, I feel it is a terrible way of looking at the world. Perhaps even more importantly, I believe it is factually incorrect.

Ironically, and as often is the case, my son would be “Exhibit A” for my argument as to the altruistic nature of humanity. He is the kindest, most giving. and altruistic person you could ever hope to meet. He is “that guy” – the one you call when you need help moving or to be picked up from the airport at 1 am. He is happy to do anything he can for his friends and relatives and always make you feel as if it was his privilege to help. His oblivion to this reality, perhaps a simple cognitive dissonance, is rather interesting to observe.

Of course, on a simplistic level, one might argue – and this is how he justifies his position – that people only do altruistic things because it gives them pleasure. For example, doing favors for friends and relatives is selfish in that it strengthens the relationship and will one-day lead to being “rewarded;” thus the acts are driven by selfishness.

But here is why that argument is wrong: Of course a person must do things that are in their own self-interest, whether it’s for their health, relationships, or the like. In fact, it is a Torah mandated obligation to take care of oneself; “Watch over yourself very carefully” (Deuteronomy 4:15). But this does not fall under the category of selfishness. Still, depending on the individual, this verse is sometimes misinterpreted. I am reminded of the following joke.

A pig walks into a bar and sees man sitting at a table with a curious looking bottle bubbling away with mist emanating from the top. Intrigued, he asks the man, “What’s this all about?” The man replies, “Well, this is a mystic potion, a concoction of my very own. Take a sip and it’ll magically release your full potential.” “Baloney!” shouts the pig.

“You see that big cat over there,” the man says, pointing at a huge lion. “He used to be a puny house cat. He took a sip of the magic potion and now he’s king of the jungle.” The man continues, “That guy over there,” pointing to a toothy crocodile, “He used to be a tiny lizard until he took a sip of the magic potion and now he's at the top of the food chain!”

“Okay,” said the pig. He grabbed the potion and took a large swig. A puff of smoke instantly enveloped him, and as it cleared he looked down at himself in utter shock. He had been transformed into a human!

“What the heck has your potion done to me?” shouts the pig. “Hmmm,” says the man, “how do you feel?”

“I feel like... I feel... I want to be more selfish... I feel like lying – like promising the world only to not deliver.” “Yep, just as I expected,” says the man, “it's turned you into a politician!”

In reality, selfishness has nothing to do with doing things for oneself. Everyone must and should do things that are in their best interest. Doing acts of kindness that result in a positive feeling is not selfish any more than the enjoyment you get from drinking a cup of iced tea when you are thirsty. Those are merely positive outcomes of fulfilling a personal need. We are required by the Torah to properly attend to our needs. The body, just like life itself, is a gift from the Almighty. We have a serious obligation to protect that with which we have been entrusted.

We also have an obligation to fulfill all that God has asked of us. The responsibility lies solely with each individual. This obligation is perhaps best expressed by the famous Jewish sage of the first century, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Ethics of our Fathers 1:14). Hillel was obviously not advocating a life of self-absorption, but rather fulfilling our responsibility to do for ourselves what needs to be done.

Selfishness, on the other hand, is a completely different concept.

Being selfish means doing something for yourself at the expense of someone else. For example: If you are standing in line at the drugstore and see someone purposefully cutting into the line simply because he doesn’t feel like waiting – that’s a selfish act. Yes, he needs the medication to take care of himself, but the choice to delay others who were already waiting to do the same was selfish. On the other hand, giving your place in line to someone who is pregnant and is having a difficult time standing in line is not a selfish act; even if a byproduct of doing so makes you feel good about yourself.

The lofty soul, gifted to mankind by the Almighty, innately desires performing acts of altruism. This should not be surprising, after all the soul was blown into the body of mankind by the Almighty as the final part of His own act of altruism and kindness – the creation of the world and everything therein. God has no need for this creation; the entirety of creation was for the purpose of gifting good to humanity.

A soul is infinitely precious; it is who we are and what makes each individual unique. We must behave in a way that opens the pathways within the soul to fully develop its (and by extension our) potential. Of course, not everyone is really in sync with what their soul truly desires. Sometimes it is obscured by their physical wants or, unfortunately, by warped principles that guide their lives.

Naturally, the more developed one’s soul, the more altruistic the person will be. Generally, the need to put one’s self first at the expense of others comes from deep rooted unhappiness. When a person feels a lack of self-worth he becomes insecure and triggers a knee-jerk reaction of compensation – acting as though he is more important than others. This leads to a very egocentric view of the world and selfish behavior.

In Judaism, we are consistently enjoined to consider our relationship with the Almighty as well as our relationships with other people. But for most of us, one of the least considered and oft-overlooked relationship is the relationship we have with ourselves.

This is quite unfortunate as it is our longest lasting, and arguably most important, relationship. Consequently, it is also the one we most often abuse. We lie to ourselves, break promises to ourselves, and do many things to sabotage this relationship. The fracture of this relationship can lead to a variety of issues ranging from a deep-seated unhappiness to endless anxiety.

Coming to terms and fully understanding one’s relationship with oneself is a very important concept to internalize and I will, God willing, devote another column to fully explaining both the intricacies and complications of this relationship.

Needless to say, a person’s innate happiness is usually dependent on this last and most critical type of relationship. Those who act selfishly or consistently fail to recognize altruistic behavior (e.g. they are always looking for the “hidden” reason someone does a kindness) are usually suffering from a poor relationship with themselves. They either do not like themselves very much, or are not in touch with their own self and do not understand their own motivations in life.

The quintessential example of true altruism can be found in a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud (Shviis Chapter 3). There the Talmud wonders why the grandfather of King Saul is sometime referred to as Aviel and sometimes referred to as Ner. Rebbe Shimon son of Lakish answered, “In truth, his name was Aviel, but he was called Ner because he used to illuminate the dark alleys” (ner also means light or candle).

According to this passage in the Talmud, it was primarily in the merit of his grandfather Ner that Saul was appointed king. What does one concept have to do with the other?

Imagine the street outside your home or your backyard. Even if there is only moonlight you can traverse it fairly easily because you know the locations of any obstacles or potholes. Ner was lighting the alleys not because he needed the light – this was where he lived and he could easily navigate it even at night – but solely for the sake of people who would be unfamiliar with the area or were otherwise compromised.

The legacy that Ner passed on to his family was the necessity of focusing on the needs of others. This is the ultimate attitude that a king must have – and in contradistinction to the attitude of many, if not most politicians – leadership isn’t about your needs or self-aggrandizement; it’s about serving others. That’s why Ner’s grandson merited to be the first king of the Jewish people.

Torah Portion of the Week

Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 - 17:16

The Jewish people leave Egypt. Pharaoh regrets letting them go, pursues them leading his chosen chariot corps and a huge army. The Jews rebel and cry out to Moses, “Weren't there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you bring us out here to die in the desert?” The Yam Soof, the Sea of Reeds (usually mistranslated as the Red Sea) splits, the Jews cross over, the Egyptians pursue and the sea returns and drowns the Egyptians. Moses with the men and Miriam with the women -- each separately -- sing praises of thanks to the Almighty.

They arrive at Marah and rebel over the bitter water. Moses throws a certain tree in the water to make it drinkable. The Almighty then tells the Israelites, “If you obey God your Lord and do what is upright in His eyes, carefully heeding all His commandments and keeping all His decrees, then I will not strike you with any of the sicknesses that I brought on Egypt. I am God who heals you.” (This is why the Hagaddah strives to prove there were more than 10 plagues in Egypt -- the greater the number of afflictions, the greater number from which we are protected.)

Later the Israelites rebel over lack of food; God provides quail and manna (a double portion was given on the sixth day to last through Shabbat; we have two challahs for each meal on Shabbat to commemorate the double portion of manna). Moses then instructs them concerning the laws of Shabbat. At Rephidim, they rebel again over water. God tells Moses to strike a stone (later in the Torah God tells Moses to speak to the stone, not here!), which then gave forth water. Finally, the portion concludes with the war against Amalek and the command to “obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.”

Candle Lighting Times

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.
— Oscar Wilde

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Elaine Alexander

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