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Does Judaism value selflessness?

In particular,

  1. Rambam in Shemoneh Perakim lists יתרון טוב הלבב as an extreme/negative character trait, and he defines this as someone who is giving to others at their own great expense.
  2. Yet, we find many stories of Torah greats and a commonly held assumption that righteousness involves one doing exactly that: giving at his own great expense.
  3. Should one be more giving toward himself or others?

Please provide sources. Sources where halacha implies a particular philosophy on this matter and sources from Rishonim are preferred.

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  • 1
    Great question, can you provide stories from the rishonim like this? To ask for sources from rishonim for moden things is not so fair... Apr 10, 2023 at 5:02
  • @fulltimekollelguy I don't think this is really a modern question. This is a philosophical and halachic question that should have always been relevant. Also, I'm not sure what you mean by providing "stories"?
    – Yehuda
    Apr 11, 2023 at 12:29
  • in principal I agree with your question, I although this a subject I have looked in to before, I hope to provide and answer next week. My comment was just saying you wrote "we find many stories of Torah greats " Yet we find very few stories of Rishonim being selfless. Therefore most answers will come from achronim Apr 11, 2023 at 12:54
  • @fulltimekollelguy interesting point!
    – Yehuda
    Apr 14, 2023 at 3:44

3 Answers 3

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This question is a great and thought-provoking question. We do find different sources about the Midah of going above and beyond the limit even taking ones own resources in order to provide for a fellow Jew.

The Tur quotes Rav Nissim Gaon https://www.sefaria.org.il/Tur%2C_Yoreh_Deah.251.1?lang=he&with=Shulchan%20Arukh,%20Yoreh%20De%27ah&lang2=he the following: כתב ה"ר סעדיה חייב אדם להקדים פרנסתו לכל אדם ואינו חייב לתת צדקה עד שיהיה לו פרנסתו שנאמר וחי אחיך עמך חייך קודמין לחיי אחיך וכן אמרה הצרפית לאליהו ועשיתי לי ולבני תחילה לי ואח"כ לבני והודה לה אליהו ואמר לה לך ולבנך תעשה באחרונה: ואחר שיפרנס נפשו This means one must first provide for himself before providing for others. The Bedek Habayis disagrees with this but just writes he disagrees. The Halacha (I do not have the source to hand) one must not spend more then a 1/6th of his money on Mitzvos is also suggestive that one should not go overboard with doing Mitzvos, rather one needs to provide for himself. Yet this needs to be done with thought and not in a selfish way, as the Tur writes מצות עשה ליתן צדקה כפי השגת ידו מאד מאד צריך אדם ליזהר בה יותר מכל מצות עשה one should spend as much as he can on tzedoka and be more scrupulous then other Mitzvos.

The Stepleir Gaon in ברכת פרץ on פרשת בשלח is discusses at length how one needs to keep in mind his own good. If one does good for others and ends up regretting it he gets a sin. There are other sources as well for this idea. Yet it is a Jewish concept that charity starts at home. One needs to be sure that his family is provded for and that comes under the umbrellea of Tzedoka.

Stories that we hear of those who went above and beyond for others, here are some questions we don’t hear the answer to…

  1. Did they provide for their families in a full way? Did their family agree or was there restenment?
  2. Did their familes suffer from the descion made?
  3. Did they come to regret what they did?
  4. Was it a one time story or did this happen on a constant basis?

So how can we make sense of these stories and apply them to our lives? Here are some possible ways:

  • Maybe these stories are meant to inspire us to do more than we think we can, but not necessarily to the same extent as the heroes of the stories.
  • Maybe these stories are meant to show us the ideal level of generosity and kindness, but not necessarily the practical level for everyone.
  • Maybe these stories are meant to challenge us to examine our own priorities and values, and see if we can align them more with the Torah's perspective.

Whatever the case may be, I think we can all agree that helping others is a very important Mitzvah, but it also requires balance and wisdom. We should not neglect our own needs or those of our families, but we should also not be stingy or selfish.

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  • Shkoyach, amazing answer. Your questions remind me of the opening story of Garden of Emuna about the hypothetical Rabbi and Pillar of The Community Shlita who completely neglected to do chessed in his own home
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Apr 16, 2023 at 11:41
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Rav Shimon Shkop notes that there are halachic indications that chessed (lovingkindness) is not supposed to be founded on selflessness.

Quoting selections from his introduction to Shaarei Yosher, my translation (from Widen Your Tent, Mosaica Press, 2019):

HOWEVER, what of a person who decides to submerge his nature, to reach a high level so that he has no thought or inclination in his soul for his own good, only a desire for the good of others? In this way he would have his desire reach the sanctity of the Creator, as His Desire in all of the creation and management of the world is only for the good of the created, and not for Himself at all. At first glance one might say that if a person reached this level, he would reach the epitome of being whole. But this is why our Sages of blessed memory teach us in this Midrash that it is not so. We cannot try to be similar to His Holiness in this respect.

For His Holiness is greater than ours. His Holiness is only for the created and not for Himself because nothing was ever added to or could ever be added to the Creator through the actions He did or does. Therefore all His Desire could only be to be good to the created, but what He wants from us is not like this. As Rabbi Aqiva taught us, “your life comes first.” [Our sages] left us a hint of it when they interpret the scripture “Love your neighbor as yourself” in a negative sense, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your peers.” In terms of obligation, it is fitting for a person to place his own good first.

Rav Shimon then notes that self-love is so firmly and centrally placed in the human psyche to the extent that it cannot be uprooted. And that this self-love is what drives us to imitate Him and be creative beings. Skipping a bit:

The sages of truth describe the purpose of all the work in this language, “The Infinite wanted to bestow complete good, that there wouldn’t even be the embarrassment of receiving.” This discussion reveals how far the power of loving oneself goes, that “a person is more content with one qav [a unit of measure] of his own making than [he would be of] two qavin that are given to him” – even if from the Hand of the Holy One! – if the present is unearned. From here it should be self-evident that love of oneself is desired by the Holy One, even though “the wise shall walk because of it and the foolish will stumble over it.” In my opinion, this is true despite all the evil and sin that the world is full of because of this middah of self-love. ,,,,

Although at first glance it seems that feelings of love for oneself and feelings of love for others are like competing co-wives one to the other [i.e. an unresolvable dialectic], we have the duty to try to delve into it, to find the means to unite them, since Hashem expects both from us. This means [a person must] explain and accept the truth of the quality of his “I”, for with it the statures of [different] people are differentiated, each according to their level.

The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am [not] for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth...

Rav Shimon's ethic is not founded on denying the self. He sees such denial as being psychologically unhealthy and decreases our drive to contribute. Rather, we must realize our interconnectedness and investing in others. We develop that realization by giving, investing in other people, until we see ourselves in them, and that love of self grows to include a love of the other.

It is therefore much like an Ethic of Care -- those we have a relationship with and resposibility for come first. The compass has a center, a corse self. As the laws of charity go, "the poor of your own city come first", before other poor. And family comes before them. (Bava Metzia 71a, Shulchan Arukh, YD 251:3, etc...)

I would add that selflessness is going to most naturally become a path to sympathy and pity. I am not a priority, your pain is. In contrast, Rav Shimon Shkop's path is founded on empathy. You are there, with them, sharing their need in a single extended "I".

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  • Hi Micha, perhaps we need a solid definition of "selfless" because your answer is presuming it means "denying self" or "not loving oneself" and I question those.
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Apr 18, 2023 at 17:03
  • See Widen Your Tent sec. 4.1 (starts on pg. 167). there I discuss how wide I think the gap is between popularized versions of the notion of bittul and R Shimon's approach. Apr 18, 2023 at 17:15
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I've also had trouble understanding this point all my life. There are many answers offered and the one that made sense to me is the one offered by chassidut, and therefore I'd like to bring it now. I hope to see other answers as well.

The concept of humility seems almost impossible to embrace, yet we are told that "For it is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do" (Devarim 30:14), which the Alter Rebbe in Tanya explains means that it is supposed to be easy and natural for a Jew to be able to keep all mitzvot and Torah precepts, including being humble. If we are finding it hard, we have either misunderstood ourselves or misunderstood what humility means.

I once heard in a shiur that one is not supposed to compromise in marriage, despite common wisdom. Then he proceeded to give a story about a couple who, for many decades, whenever they would fly on a plane, the husband would sit by the window and wife by the aisle. At some point, they realised that each spouse thought the other preferred that seat, so they were offering it to them, but the truth is that it was the other way around! One figured that he likes the aisle, but he will gladly give it to her and sit by the window. She figured that the window was best so she gladly gave it to her husband. This is not about compromise at all, neither were compromising, in fact, they never realised because they were actually both getting what they really wanted - making their spouse happy.

This is the essence of bittul, or humility. There is a famous pasuk in Shir HaShirim - I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me. This is a chassidic answer, which means it's all about relationships - relationships are the most Godly aspect of creation, so how does God want us to structure our relationships?

What He wants from us is 2 things. 1 is that we should have our own self identity, which really boils down to having a personality and things that we want and like, that makes us unique (Ratzon is the highest sefira, and therefore the most fundamental). Then, He wants us to become people whose greatest pleasure and enjoyment in life is serving others. He doesn't want us to have no other wants, and there is a reason for that, which we will get to in a moment, but He does want our greatest, highest goal and ambition in life to be "for our beloveds", not for ourselves.

A quick detour to discussing the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This has been explained in many ways and the chassidic explanation is like this. It is a tree of da'at (which is the spiritual ability to internalise knowledge, and leads to self identity and self consciousness), and it is both good and bad. Why is it good? It is good because it means that we can actually be separate individuals and therefore it enables genuinely Godly relationships. It is bad because it can make us into selfish individuals who only are "for myself".

So back to the couple we discussed above. If either of them were completely selfless, then there wouldn't been any room for a relationship. The husband, desperate to give something to his wife that she wants, would find she wants nothing and therefore not be able to find anyone there to love and be for, and visa versa. However, because they are both individuals, they both do have something with which to serve each other and be served by. When the husband thought his wife would prefer the aisle, he got to do something very Godly, and let her have it. He got to do so at his own expense, which was great, he absolutely lives for her and there is no greater pleasure in the world than making her happy and giving her what she wants - serving her. The fact that he had to not get what he wanted was not a compromise, in fact it enhanced his service for her, he got to do something particularly grand on her behalf, at his own expense. When he found out that she actually preferred the window seat, you understand the mixed feelings - all very Godly - where he felt sad that he hadn't actually been serving her, but happy that he found out what makes her happy and can actually give that to her, but also a little sad that he now is going to be giving less altruistically to her because now it's going to be easy, as he will actually be getting what he wants.

That's ultimately what this world is all about and why Hashem started this whole mess. The highest spiritual plane is the plane of Atzilut, which is the world of "there's nothing but you". Our souls are all rooted there. However, when it truly is that we are all over the moon to serve others and never think about ourselves, there are a few questions that can be asked that taint it. Firstly, what is there to serve others, when everyone is selfless? Secondly, what is the greatness of serving others if it is so natural and Godly to a soul, and there's no resistance or challenge in it?

So we are sent to the lowest world, the world of Asiya, a world where we are predominantly out for ourselves. We feel our own needs much stronger than the needs of others and our natural instinct is to put them first, no matter the cost. If there's any time and energy left over, then we might consider serving someone else. Hashem invites us, step by step, to rise through the worlds. First the world of Yetzira, where we are able to view the needs of others as just as important as our own. The world of compromising. Then we step up to the world of Beriya, where we actually become more interested in the needs of others than our own needs.

After we have stepped through all this, then we can enter the world of Atzilut again, where all we see is our beloved, not ourselves. The questions that were asked before we left have all fallen away, and along the way we have become dynamic, wonderful people, who have something for our beloveds' to serve ("my beloved is for me" remember!).

The first step in all this is to realise that it is better to be needed than it is to be needy. This is what will shake us out of our Asiya-dik stupor and realise that there is indeed a great nobility and pleasure in serving others. When we truly start to see the greatness in the fact that we are needed, and allow others to also respond to our need, we are well on our way back to Atzilut, with a strong momentum that lasts and doesn't require constant "inspiration" and "chizuk" to keep us going. One thing we realise is that there's nothing wrong with taking pleasure in being altruistic either. If my main pleasure in life is "being for my beloved", then that's about as Godly as it gets. And if we are worried that you will be challenged, when we get back to Atzilut, that we only did it for the pleasure - don't worry. Much of the time, in this cold, dark world, we don't feel the pleasure or the connection. That's often just a gift from Hashem in the moment, to make us remember what the right path is. We will respond to the needs of others under a lot of heroic challenge in life, leave that up to Hashem.

At least now we understand what it means to be humble, why it isn't "across the sea" or "in the heavens" that we should have to go and get it (Devarim 30:12-13). It's doable, easy (yet challenging) and makes sense. Only one who truly grasps this concept will understand what the Rambam you quoted is saying: in order to serve others effectively, one has to first look after one's self. Primarily, so that one has the energy and wherewithal to rise to the immensely important, holy task of serving others, but also because they need to give to you too. If you are nothing, they have nobody to give to, and you will deny Hashem what He created the whole world for - true intimacy and oneness between each other.

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  • I realise you asked for sources in Rishonim so I understand this answer will not be great for you, but hopefully someone else reading this question will benefit from the answer (and I'll try to add some Rishonic sources when I can - I recently saw a discussion about the reason why having a personality, granted by the tree of knowledge, was important to Hashem and I believe it was Rishonic)
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Apr 10, 2023 at 11:50
  • What you say about compromise gets to the heart of the difference between contractual and covenantal relationships, and the heart of the idea of "beris". (More at Widen Your Tent sec. 6.1,) Apr 18, 2023 at 17:18
  • @MichaBerger thanks, look forward to getting to it. It arrived this weekend.
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Apr 18, 2023 at 17:25

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