Becoming Selfless

By Rabbi Micah Segelman

Rav Dessler made a number of important contributions to Jewish thought. One of the ideas that he helped to popularize and develop is that there are two powerful and opposing forces which motivate human action – the impetus to give and the desire to take. He writes that, “These two forces – giving and taking – are at the root of all character traits and all actions (1).” Taking can lead to great evils while giving is an essential trait of Hashem which we are enjoined to emulate.

The act of taking can appear in many different forms – accumulating possessions or enhancing social status are obvious examples. But even many seemingly generous acts are motivated by self interest. The common thread is that the motivation is to address a personal need. There is a void which we are trying to fill.

Giving is the opposite. For a person to give he must first feel complete. He (or she) feels no unmet needs – and from this position of strength reaches beyond himself to address the needs of others. In Rav Dessler’s words he is “like a river whose waters increase and overflow the river’s borders (2).” The distinction between giver and taker isn’t necessarily based on any objective difference in what they have – only in how they relate to what they have.

I’d like to focus on what I believe is an extremely important application of this idea. The need to feel good about oneself is almost as basic as eating and drinking. When a person’s need for self esteem is unmet he looks outside of himself for validation, usually in one of two ways. One way is to seek the approval and esteem of others. And the second is to try to find validation through achievement – I can feel good about myself if I’ve accomplished enough. When a person seeks outside validation he is taking instead of giving.

When a person looks to other people for validation he isn’t able to give to them because he’s too busy trying to take from them. Furthermore, a person who is dependent on other people’s approval is under a lot of pressure to conform to their expectations and is focused on the need to impress them rather than on doing what is most constructive in any given situation.

The tendency to allow our self esteem to depend on our accomplishments is common in our society where the prevailing mentality equates our worth with our achievements. This is counterproductive and will result in accomplishing less, since it’s very difficult to handle setbacks if they bruise our fragile ego. Our achievements will be limited and our judgment will be distorted by this conflict of interest. And as long as a person seeks to feel worth through his accomplishments, he is focused on meeting his own needs and is unable to selflessly give of himself for the sake of a larger purpose.

So how do we move past these unhealthy patterns? Leading psychologists advocate not allowing our self acceptance to depend on our accomplishments. Albert Ellis writes, “For when you do badly, or think you do badly, or think that others see you as doing badly, you denigrate your whole self and feel worthless . . . your conditional self acceptance often leads to self damning . . Unconditional self acceptance works much better than conditional self acceptance. It consists of your decision to accept yourself independent of your performances – whether or not you do well and whether or not you earn approval by others (3).” David Burns writes in a similar vein, “If you insist your worth is determined by your achievement, you are creating a self esteem equation: worth = achievement. What is the basis for making this equation? . . . You can’t prove the equation because it is just a stipulation, a value system (4).”

What I have found perplexing is how to reconcile these powerful and useful ideas with a Torah perspective. The Torah certainly doesn’t suggest that we look to the approval of others to feel worthwhile. But doesn’t our religion stress the importance of achievement? Don’t those who achieve more, or at least achieve a greater share of what they are capable of, have greater worth than those who don’t? Furthermore, how do we reconcile our insistence on doing what is correct and condemning sin with a perspective of unconditionally accepting ourselves when we may feel significant regret for things we have done? Doesn’t sin diminish our worth?

I believe there are powerful Torah ideas which can help address these questions. Ultimately the Torah provides a strong and resilient basis for self esteem while simultaneously giving great meaning to our achievements and life struggle to choose right over wrong.

Basic to Torah thought is that the G-d given mission of each individual person and the mission of mankind as a whole are of profound importance. The Torah’s basis for self esteem thus comes from the fact that we are worthy of the attention and interest of Hashem Himself and that we can give meaning to our lives and fulfill our mission by making good choices (5).

We must realize that our mission in life is to do our own individual best. Who among us thinks that their life will have the impact of Rebbe Akiva? Of Rashi? Of the Chofetz Chaim? Others are greater than us. But so what? My own individual mission has great meaning. Comparison to another person of greater talents is irrelevant. This idea is expressed in many places including in Rabbeinu Yonah’s explanation of the Mishna which tells us that “The work is not upon you to complete it (6).” He says that even if we are of modest intellect our Torah study is of great significance. And the Mishna in Sanhedrin (37a) teaches that the creation of the world was worthwhile even for a single person. This doesn’t only apply to the greatest among us – it applies to each of us. So our self esteem shouldn’t suffer even if we feel that we haven’t achieved everything we wanted to.

But what if we have squandered opportunities to achieve by making poor choices? In reference to the Mishna in Sanhedrin (37a) cited above, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel explains that the creation of the entire world is justified in order to provide an opportunity for a single person with free will to choose to fulfill Hashem’s commandments. Rav Finkel stresses that this applies even to a wicked person. Even the rasha can choose to change direction in life and thus his life decisions have great significance to Hashem (7).

My life continues to have great significance in spite of mistakes that I’ve made. Is it unfortunate that I may not have realized 100% of my potential and that perhaps others have done a better job actualizing themselves? Yes, of course. But does sin diminish our worth? If we go through our entire lives without utilizing life’s opportunities for positive and meaningful activity then our life will have had little value. But throughout the course of life our lives have deep meaning and worth because of the choices we can still make. Rabbeinu Yonah tells us that we should never be discouraged by the mistakes we have made. We shouldn’t be burdened by the weight of our sins. Becoming despondent is unhelpful and we should instead focus on the fact that Hashem desires that we improve ourselves (8).

The Torah approach to self esteem differs, not surprisingly, from the secular approach. But the common ground is that we must not be discouraged when our achievements fail to measure up to those of others or when we realize our failure to have fully achieved all that we can. Common to both approaches is also that dependence upon the approval of others is unhelpful.

As long as we look to our achievements or to outside approval for validation our interactions with the outside world will be circumscribed by our restrictive perspective. When we no longer have this dependence we’ll be able to look beyond ourselves. If we can focus on achieving greatness with our ego removed from the equation then our actions won’t be tinged with self interest. We will become selfless and will be emulating Hashem who is the quintessential giver. Our actions will emanate from loftier motives and we will achieve much more profound success.

(1)Rav Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu,Vol 1: Kuntras HaChessed, chapter 1
(2)Rav Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu,Vol 1: Kuntras HaChessed, chapter 8
(3)Ellis, Albert, Feeling Better, Getting Better, Staying Better (Atascadero, CA 2001) page 24. See also Burns, Dr David, Feeling Good (New York 1999) chapters 11 and 13, and Twerski, Rabbi Dr Abraham, Ten Steps To Being Your Best (Brooklyn, NY 2004), chapters 2 and 3
(4)Burns pages 331-332
(5)See the writings of Rabbi Dr Twerski and Dr David J Lieberman
(6)Rabbeinu Yonah, Avos 2:16
(7) Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel (The Alter of Slobodka), Ohr Hatzafun, Sefer Toldos Adam: Part B
(8)Rabbeinu Yonah, Yesod Hateshuva, and Rabbeinu Yonah, Avos 2:1

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3 comments on “Becoming Selfless

  1. Great article! One thought,

    In the last paragraph you write “if we can focus on achieving greatness with our ego removed from the equation … ” It seems to me that focusing on achieving greatness is itself an ego trip which is not possible while removing the ego from the equation.

    It seems that long as our focus is on “greatness” and “striving for our perfection” our motives are self-centered and not selfless. Only by focusing on someone, “SomeOne” or some cause beyond ourselves can we become truly selfless and achieve greatness. This is the paradox: by focusing on achieving greatness we will never achieve it, only by focusing beyond ourselves  can we achieve the selflessness and greatness as an unintended “side effect”.

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