“Selfishness, Selflessness, and the Relationship of Giving” by Lauren Shaps


Hey to the Chevra,

Watching the European Union and the government of Greece make their moves in the dance of debt, I am reminded of how complex relationships of giving and getting can be.

Whether we are looking at whole nations or individuals, our thoughts about choices are often polarized. When we use terms like "selfless," indicating no self, or "selfish," meaning only focused on oneself, we reinforce the thought that a choice can only be one or the other. We will argue that if we take care of ourselves, it's not selfish because then we have more to take care of others. Sometimes we think, "Don't be a sucker. Look after No. 1." On the other end of the spectrum is the idea that giving is good, giving leads to loving, do for others and we are really doing for ourselves. Make the world better for others and we benefit, too.

This confusing jumble bouncing around in our heads means we swing between idealism and exhaustion. Our families don't know which personality will greet them at any given hour, the one who is ready to do it all or the one who has done, is done and now can't move from the couch.

In this week's Torah reading, Parashat Matot, G-d gives Moses one last command to fulfill before he dies. G-d tells Moses to organize the army to fight against the Midianites, who, without provocation, withheld food and water and attempted to curse and corrupt the Jewish nation. G-d lets Moses know that after the battle, Moses will die and the Jewish people will enter the Promised Land. The Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni 31:1) tells us that G-d does not tell Moses when to attack. If he delays the war, he can prolong his life. Moses knows that the best thing for the Jewish people is to fight this battle and then go into Israel. He rallies the army to attack right away.

Think about the long life of Moses. His formative years were spent as the prince of Egypt, Pharaoh's adopted son. The Torah describes how he left the palace and saw the suffering of his people. After killing an Egyptian in defence of an Israelite slave, Moses escaped to Midian, the very nation that is now giving grief to the Jewish people as they camp in the desert. Moses got his call at the burning bush, returned to Egypt to challenge Pharaoh and fulfilled G-d's promise by leading the Jewish people from slavery to the encounter with G-d and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, followed by 40 years of challenge and growth and transformation in the desert.

A big part of our journey through life is getting to know ourselves, what makes us tick, where we can expand and grow and live big, and when we have overstepped and need to pull back and regroup. We teach this to our kids as we slowly nudge them out of their comfort zones, not too far and not too fast. We give them opportunities to test their limits and help them put the pieces back together, when it doesn't go well. Good parents are coaches. We teach them when to push and when to pace. We provide the pre-game prep, encourage lots of practice and we are there for the post-game review. Why did they do poorly on the exam? Why is their best friend unhappy with them? What can they learn and how can they do it differently next time?

Study the great Jewish personalities of our Torah and you will see they don't walk on water. The Torah highlights their challenges and even their failures. The contrast gives us a better understanding of their greatness. There are times when Moses reaches his limit. He is a great human being, a devoted servant of G-d and a dedicated leader of his people. He is willing to take enormous risks to alleviate their suffering and bring them closer to G-d. Yet there are times when, like every good parent, teacher or leader, he is worn out, frustrated and ready to give up. At moments like these, we might say his balance between selfless and selfish seems to be out of whack.

That is why, in my mind, this final command given by G-d to Moses brings it all together. Moses's life has been one of service: service of G-d and service of the Jewish people. His life is filled with the understanding that selflessness is not about denying the self but about expanding the self. His concern is not selfless nor selfish. He wants to do the right thing in any given situation. While G-d gives him the choice to extend his life by delaying the fulfillment of His command, Moses acts with vigour and alacrity. What is best for his people is one and the same with what is best for him. Rabbi Noach Weinberg (1930-2009, founder of Aish HaTorah) taught that if you know what you would be prepared to die for, then you know what you have to live for. Moses has lived his life for the Jewish people and is now willing to allow his life to end for the Jewish people. His sense of self, selfless and selfish, have merged to become one and the same.

Shabbat Shalom,


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