Moved by a powerful sense of humility and self abnegation, two spiritually accomplished mystics were observed rolling on the floor while repeatedly affirming their sense of nothingness.
The true extent of their humility was not quite known however, until to their chagrin, a third individual of far lesser spiritual status decided to join them.
With rolling eyes, one mystic was overheard whispering to the other in utter disgust: “Take a look at who thinks he’s nobody!”
A certain Chassid was ‘notorious’ for his extreme humility and self-effacement. Once he was asked: “Does not the Talmud say that even a Torah scholar must retain ‘one eighth of one eighth of pride?”
Replied the Chassid: “Let us assume that you are right, and that when I come to stand before the heavenly court it will indeed be found that I am a ‘Torah scholar.’ ‘Hmm,’ the supernal judge will sternly demand ‘What have we here? I see a Torah scholar. Where is your ‘eighth of an eighth’?!’ Let us further assume, my friend, that as you claim, I was somewhat deficient in this area. I guess that this would put me into somewhat of a bind. Nevertheless, I am fairly confident I will somehow manage to scrape together enough evidence of ego and pride in my life to satisfy the Talmudic requirement.
“But what of following possibility: I come before the heavenly court to account and I am told: ”Eighth of eighth’s we see aplenty of that, but where is the ‘Torah scholar’?’ You see, I’d rather take my chances with the first scenario…”
“Just two choices on the shelf, pleasing G-d or pleasing self.” ― Ken Collier
Our Parsha; Bo, portrays the continued saga of Egypt’s insubordination to G-d and its resultant self destruction. More plagues more shuttle diplomacy on the part of Moshe and Aharon, more changes of heart on the part Pharaoh…
It is obvious that the systematic downfall of Pharaoh and the Egyptian culture played an essential role in the emergence of the Jewish nation – a nation taken “From the midst of a nation.” Why else would the Torah present our birth in that manner?
The Torah, in fact, is very clear about the instructive nature of the damning plagues visited upon Egypt: “Come to Pharaoh,” says G-d to Moshe in the opening verse of our Parsha, “For I have made his heart and the hearts of his servants stubborn, so that I can place these signs of Mine in his midst; and so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son’s son ‘that I made a mockery of Egypt’ . . . so that you may know that I am the Lord.”
But what is so important about Pharaoh’s defiant interplay with G-d and his ensuing mockery, as a necessary prelude to Israel’s birth? What, for that matter, was the essential character flaw behind Pharaoh’s rebellious conduct to begin with? And what, in the end, are we to learn from his dramatic downfall?
As mentioned, given its prominent association with our earliest formation as a people, the trait in question must be of fundamental importance to our nationhood and mission as G-d’s chosen people. The latter precludes any pathological condition, for it is not likely that the Torah would spend that many chapters or any chapters at all, even verses, describing an uncontrollable pathological disorder, since there is nothing we can learn from it or do about it.
It also precludes the profile of a hapless and helpless fool, because neither would the Torah waist its time discussing traits that belong to imbeciles that can’t help themselves, as the Talmud states: “V’Chi B’Shuftini Askinan?” Are we then dealing with imbeciles? E.g. the Talmud doesn’t use cases involving idiots in teaching its lessons and rules (Bava Metzia 40a). The same would certainly hold true with regards to Torah as well.
So, to what grave characteristic – of paramount importance to our function as a people – does the Torah wish to alert us, by way of the protracted narrative of Pharaoh’s stubborn defiance and painful collapse?
The answer is got to be selfishness. Selfishness is indeed the mother of all negative traits, for all evil within man stems from her. In absence of selfishness, there would be no arrogance, anger, hate, prejudice, jealousy, intolerance or any of the other harmful attributes. “Almost every sinful action ever committed can be traced back to a selfish motive. It is a trait we hate in other people but justify in ourselves. ” (Stephen Kendrick, The Love Dare).
Well, you say, who could argue with that? Selfishness is by all accounts a very harmful and destructive human character flaw; it makes perfect sense to pin the destructive defiance of Pharaoh and his Egyptian cohorts on this repugnant mortal inclination and deficiency.
The simple lesson would then be that selfishness is so detrimental a trait that it is responsible for bringing down the mighty king Pharaoh and turning the most sophisticated and advanced ancient culture into a shameful mockery; who’s only trace of existence is relegated to the artifacts of modern archeological excavation and the pages of history books.
Indeed, this foretelling scenario has repeated itself throughout the annals of history with regards to every despot and corrupt culture, from Haman to Hitler – Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Husain.
Even so lowly a creature as Nazi war criminal Hans Frank, brought to justice at the historic Nuremberg trials and one of those hanged for his part in the Nazi atrocities and crimes against humanity, has managed to contribute to this fateful prophesy: “Here [in the prison of Nuremberg] are the would-be rulers of Germany; each in a cell like this, with four walls and a toilet, awaiting trial as ordinary criminals. Is that not proof of G-d’s amusement with man’s sacrilegious quest for power?…This trial is willed by G-d.”
It’s hard to believe that Hans Frank, aka the “Jew Butcher of Krakow,” could possibly have known how true his words actually were. Can there be a greater realization of the foretelling Divine words of our Parsha: “So that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst; and so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son’s son ‘that I made a mockery of Egypt’ . . . so that you may know that I am the Lord.”
Sometimes it takes an evil anti-semite to recognize and proclaim things that others fail to see or say. When one who is so immersed in evil finds himself compelled at the end of his life to acknowledge his humility before G-d and the consequences of his “Sacrilegious quest for power,” that is the ultimate expression of Divinity.
Yet the vice and determent of our selfish nature and its evil core is far from conclusive, it’s not at all that simple. Did you really think it would be? There is a long standing and well founded argument to the contrary. The gist of the differing philosophy is best summed-up in the question: “Isn’t everyone selfish?
Some variation of this query is frequently raised as an objection to the call for a more selfless approach to life. For example: “Everyone really does what they want, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.” Or: “No one ever really sacrifices himself. Since every purposeful action is motivated by some value or goal that the actor desires, one always acts selfishly, whether one knows it or not.”
This argument is the subject of a 1964 collection of essays and papers by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden, compiled in a book called The Virtue of Selfishness – A New Concept of Egoism. The Virtue of Selfishness presents Ayn Rand’s revolutionary moral code of rational selfishness and its opposition to the prevailing morality of altruism—i.e., to the duty to sacrifice for the sake of others.
In his book Winning Through Intimidation, self-help author Robert J. Ringer, a proponent of the same philosophy, stated that The Virtue of Selfishness is Rand’s “Masterpiece.”
They and others argue that the misguided definition of selflessness has created the image of the brute as its antithesis; portraying any concern with one’s own interests as evil, regardless of what these interests might be. The brute’s activities, they claim, are perceived as personally gainful, which altruism enjoins us to renounce for the sake of our neighbors.
Altruism and selflessness, Rand asserts, are misinterpreted to suggest that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value, and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes. This misinterpretation plays, in no small way, into our corrupt moral values.
According to the aforestated criteria, an industrialist who produces a fortune and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “Selfish” benefit. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “The people,” not himself…
Beneficiary oriented selflessness devalues and disregards the importance of higher purpose, since it produces self-gain, which is essentially a loss. Self-inflicted pain and incomprehensible duty comprise its goals. One may at best hope for the occasional sacrifice by others, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for them. But he knows that this relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure. He knows that their pursuit of moral values will be like an exchange of unwanted, un-chosen gifts, which neither is morally permitted, to buy for himself.
Yet apart from when managing to perform some act of self-sacrifice, one is forbidden higher “Selfish” ambition. Morality has nothing to offer to him; it is regarded either as evil or, at best, amoral.
Moreover, since nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival and since he has to support his life by his own effort, man’s effort and desire to live is hence, by definition, evil. Man’s life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that.
To paraphrase the conundrum in simple terms, we are faced here with the ultimate catch 22: To have higher values and purpose in life, requires a sense of self awareness and self realization. Self awareness and realization is by definition “Selfish.” Selfishness as we’ve established at the very outset, is the root of all evil.
Were we to recant the premise of the evil within selfishness, then where would we draw the line, since we all would have to agree that selfishness in its most raw form is certainly a source of evil, if not the ultimate source? So how is this resolved?
The issue of selfishness is no small matter, it is indispensable to anyone who wants to understand the crucial ethical issues at the root of our religion and so many of our cultural debates today—who wants to discover the essence of morality, religion and wholesome living.
Truth be told Ayn Rand and Robert J. Ringer, in his book: Looking Out For Number One, do a pretty good job at defusing the contradiction, despite being considerably controversial and not really accepted in mainstream science. Rand’s “Objectivist” views were for the most part rejected. You would of course have to read their work to understand their theories. But generally speaking, they draw a distinction between “Rational selfishness and irrational selfishness, which seems to make a lot of sense and tends to be consistent with Torah.
For those who don’t wish to go there (I blame you not) and would like an answer that is more Torah oriented, I suggest the following idea: While we can’t change the fact that higher values and purpose in life, even the most lofty and religious, require self purpose and realization, which is inevitably selfish by definition, we can and are actually required to change and refine the “Self in selfish;” to purify and refine it, until it is in total sync with the highest form of goodness and kindness – G-dliness. But in the end there will always remain a trace of the self that cannot be avoided.
This whole question of pride is extremely delicate. Would Judaism frown on a man taking pride in his work or on a Jew taking pride in his Jewishness? It can be argued that in some circumstances pride is the driving force for worthwhile activities. There is obviously significant tension over this problem.
Perhaps that is the idea of the Shminis She-B’shminis (the eighth of the eighth) that the Talmud talks about: “R’ Chiya ben Ashi said in the name of Rav: A disciple of the Sages should possess an eighth of an eighth of pride ‘R Huna the son of R’ Yehoshua said: This small amount of pride crowns him like the awn of the grain. Raba said: A disciple of the Sages who possesses haughtiness of spirit deserves excommunication, and if he does not possess it he deserves excommunication” (Talmud Sotah 5a).
Suffice it to say that pride is, in the Jewish tradition, among the most serious of the vices, as humility is among the highest of the virtues.
A Chasidic master put it this way. Every person must have two slips of paper in his pocket. On one he should inscribe the words uttered by Avraham: ‘I am dust and ashes.’ On the other he should inscribe the words taken from the Mishnah: ‘For my sake the whole world was created.’ In moments when the danger lurks of excessive pride he should take out the slip reminding him that he is dust and ashes. But when his self-doubt threatens to be completely stultifying, he must take out the other slip to reaffirm that the whole world was created for his sake.
Through our sincere struggle with this delicate topic, may the Almighty give us the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the heart to know the right formula and hasten thereby the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.