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Is Self-Interest Incompatible with Altruism?

Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20 )

by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

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From the moment of our birth, we clamour for our wants and needs, and we spend the rest of our lives pursuing them. Clearly, God has hard-wired self-interest deep into the human psyche, so it’s certainly not something we view as necessarily evil. On the contrary, halacha – Jewish law – explicitly reflects this. The Talmud sets out the following scenario: two people are walking in the desert, and one of them has a flask of water. There’s only enough water for one of them to make it to civilisation; if they share the water, they will die. The great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva, rules that in such a case, “your life comes first”; the one who has the water drinks it. Survival of the self comes first.

At the same time, while self-interest is a powerful and unshakeable force of human nature, it can also be extremely destructive. Even self-destructive. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says: “Jealousy, physical desires and the pursuit of honour remove a person from this world.”

Jealousy, desire and honour are all selfcentred forces within a person, and the Mishna is saying that a person who is selfcentred ultimately brings destruction on himself. God has created the world in such a way that when a person blindly pursues selfgratification, he paradoxically does grave harm to himself. Those who are consumed with jealousy, with the pursuit of their physical desires, with acquiring honour and recognition from others at all costs, find no peace of mind and are drawn to act in ways that harm not just the people they perceive to be standing in their way – they harm themselves too.

It goes beyond that, to our ultimate calling in this world, which is a calling towards holiness. This week’s parsha, Kedoshim, opens with a clarion call to the Jewish people: “You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy.” (Vayikra 19:2) What is this call to holiness? What does it mean to be holy? And what does it mean that God is holy?

Rabbi Shimon Shkop, one of the great Lithuanian sages of the pre-war years, has a fascinating explanation. He says God’s essential “characteristic”, as far as we can talk about such things, is His pure goodness and kindness. God is completely self-sufficient; He needs nothing, nor does He receive anything, and everything He does is therefore an act of pure, unreciprocated kindness – from the creation of the universe to taking care of our smallest needs, and the needs of the smallest and seemingly most insignificant of creatures. This selfless giving is how Rabbi Shkop defines holiness, and it is this we are called on to emulate so that we, too, can become holy.

It’s a beautiful idea, but the Midrash gives us pause for thought, saying God reaches a level of holiness that no human being can. Rabbi Shkop explains the Midrash: no human being can ever attain this ideal like God, because we have been created with an intrinsic love of and concern for the self, which will always factor into the equation.

So, we have a dilemma: how do we attain holiness – defined as acting purely selflessly – when we are unable to do so? How do we reconcile the conflicting ideals of selfinterest and pure giving?

Rabbi Shkop has an answer that is deep and beautiful. If the self is getting in the way of helping others, then we need to expand our definition of the self.

When we refer to “I”, who are we talking about? Who or what is contained in our definition of self? Rabbi Shkop explains that a lowly, coarse person sees himself, defines his “I”, as purely a physical body. Someone slightly more elevated sees his soul as part of his self-identity. At a higher level, one’s identity encompasses one’s spouse and children, and then one’s community, and so it goes. An even greater person includes the entire Jewish people in his sense of “I”, and even beyond that – the entire world. The more spiritually elevated a person, the more people included in that person’s sense of “I”.

So the call to holiness is not about selfdenial. It is a call to become a greater person by expanding the definition of “self”, and in so doing, unleashing the powerful force of giving and kindness to so many more people, and in a much richer, more fulfilling, far holier way.

Of course, it’s not so easy; it is, indeed, a lifelong journey. Initially, life is only about meeting our own needs. Then we graduate from this survivalist state of being; we marry and start a family, assuming greater responsibility, expanding our definition of self to encompass others. And we continue expanding our world, taking on responsibility for our community, for those around us, for the Jewish people as a whole, and even for the entire world. It’s a cosmic journey of selfdiscovery and self-transformation whose destination is the soul’s perfection and its ultimate expression.

Essentially, the more we reach out to others, the greater we become. This is why, when a child is born, we pray: “May this katan” – this small one, “become gadol” – become big. We pray for this infant, so naturally preoccupied with meeting its immediate physical needs, to become an adult in the fullest sense of the word, to become someone who sees the people around him, really sees them, and has an expansive perspective of the world, and an expansive definition of self.

This worldview touches on so much of Judaism. There are many mitzvot of chessed (loving kindness): comforting mourners, visiting the sick, burying the dead, tzedakah – helping those in need. So much of the Torah is about reaching out to others, about taking responsibility for community and making the world a better place.

On a personal level, it is also about building family. The act of constituting a marriage is termed by our sages as kiddushin, which comes from the Hebrew word kedusha, meaning holiness. In what way is marriage an act of holiness? Creating a marriage should be the ultimate act of giving to another. By defining marriage as an act of holiness, our sages are teaching us that marriage is all about selfless giving, and that the creation of a family is all about expanding the concept of “self” and reaching out to others; transcending the self to becoming a greater person.

When fulfilling each other is a priority for husband and wife, other desires and preferences become subordinate. By putting our own needs aside, we don’t feel that we are sacrificing anything.

Essentially, then, through marriage a person expands his definition of self and demonstrates that his life is not only about his own immediate, personal, selfish needs, but rather the needs of another human being, to constitute a broader, greater human being. As it says in the book of Bereishit, when God gave direction for the very first marriage in history between Adam and Eve, He said: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife and they shall become one flesh.” (2:24)

Marriage is about two people becoming one, a process of transcending the self and evolving to become a greater being. And that is why the bringing together of Adam and Eve is prefaced with the words: “It is not good for a person to be alone.” It is not good for us to be limited, when this expanded definition of the self, this broadmindedness, this human greatness and holiness is ours for the taking. That definition of self is further expanded as children are born.

Life is a journey towards holiness, a journey towards expanding the self and achieving the greatness that God knows we are capable of.

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