Friday Candle Lighting: 4:26 PM
Shabbat Ends: 5:25 PM
“And the emaciated and inferior cows ate up the first seven healthy cows.” (41:20)
Is altruism possible? It’s often said that true altruism is impossible, because all acts of generosity and kindness leave the doer with a feeling of self-satisfaction. And we are not just talking about people who are virtue-signaling or trying to prove that they are holier-than-thou. This view says it is impossible not to feel good about doing good, and true altruism cannot exist because we always get a kick-back.
The Talmud (Pesachim 68b) relates that Rav Sheishet reviewed all his learning every thirty days. He would then say to himself, “Rejoice my soul! For you I learned (the Written) Torah! For you I learned (the Oral) Torah!” This is seemingy difficult to understand, as the gemara goes on to question: Rabbi Elazar said, “Were it not for Torah, the Heavens and the Earth would not exist.” Torah is not merely a matter of self-satisfaction. It is the raison d’être for the universe. How, then, can Rabbe Elazar learn Torah just for himself?
The gemara gives an answer, “The root of action is self-interest.”
This answer begs the question, “Should not Rav Sheishet’s motivation have been to perpetuate the world, the creation? Is it possible that he was motivated by selfishness?”
Let’s answer this with another question.
The Shema says that we must love G-d, “…with all your heart…” The Hebrew spelling here is levavecha. The Talmud asks why the word for heart — ‘lev’ — has two letter “bet’s,” when seemingly only one is needed? (Berachot 54a) And it answers that each person has two inclinations, an altruistic one and a selfish one. The verse says, “Serve G-d with all of your heart” (with two letter bet’s), teaching that we must serve G-d with both of our inclinations, even with the evil inclination.
“How does one serve G-d with our negative/evil/selfish inclination?”
In rabbinic literature, Esav is associated with the yetzer hara — the negative drive — and Yaakov with the yetzer hatov – the positive drive.
Esav is the first-born.
True, the beginning of all motivation is selfishness, but the job of the positive drive is to reeducate the negative, selfish drive with a redefinition of self — a redefinition of “I.”
The Talmud in Succah uses a measurement called a ‘tefach sameach.’ A tefach is a handbreadth. A ‘tefach sameach’ is a slightly larger tefach, but literally means ‘a happy tefach.’ Why didn’t our Sages name this slightly-larger tefach “a large tefach” or “a maxi-tefach”? Why call it a ‘happy tefach?’ How can a measurement be happy?
Happiness is the perception that I have expanded, become enhanced. When we marry, our perception of “me” is not just me, but myself and my spouse. When we have children, our “I” encompasses our family, and then our grandchildren, and then, G-d willing, our great-grandchildren.
Avraham Avinu saw himself as the entire creation. He expanded his concept of “I” to the maximum degree possible.
The job of the positive inclination is not to vanquish the negative drive but to reeducate it, to teach it who “I” really is. But if the negative drive refuses to readjust its worldview, it becomes a scrawny cow that devours the most beneficent and opulent altruism.