Kabbala Of Selfishness

You Can’t Live With It, You Can’t Live …

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Fl

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 is of great significance to the overall Divine cosmic design – it played a particularly essential role in the emergence of the Jewish nation – a nation taken “From the midst of a nation.” Why otherwise would our birth be presented in this imaginative manner?

The Torah is, in fact, very clear about the significance of the humiliating downfall of Egypt by virtue of the damning plagues: “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 why is Pharaoh’s public mockery so important to G‑d?  What essential characteristic, for that matter, does he represent that is so abhorrent to G‑d? And what, in the end, are we to learn from Egypt’s dramatic downfall?

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 or psychotic condition, for it is not likely that the Torah would spend that many chapters or any chapters at all, even verses, describing an uncontrollable 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 morons in presenting 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 alert us by weaving our origins with 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 most sophisticated and advanced ancient culture and turning its mighty leader into a shameful mockery; who’s only trace of existence is relegated to the artifacts of modern archeology and the pages of history books.

Indeed, this foretelling scenario has been repeated in the annals of history in connection with every despot and corrupt culture that has defied its true Owner, 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 play his role in this Divine law that seems implanted in nature: “Here [in the prison of Nuremberg] are the would-be rulers of Germany,” declared Frank, “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 pertinent his words actually were. Is this not the greatest fruition of the foretelling Divine declaration in 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?"

The humbling of the arrogant appears to be particularly pleasurable to G‑d; it is the ultimate expression of Divine truth in the world. It is even more so the case when the conceited are alone compelled to acknowledge their humility before G‑d and recognize the consequences of their “Sacrilegious quest for power.”

This then is the lesson of our Parsha in its declaration: “I made a mockery of Egypt’… so that you may know that I am the Lord?…”

Isn’t everyone selfish?

Yet the vice and detriment of the selfish nature and its evil core is far from decisive, it’s not at all without challenge. 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: “But isn’t everyone selfish?

Variations of this query are raised in objection to the case for a more selfless life approach. For example: “Doesn’t everyone really do what they want, otherwise they wouldn’t do it?” Or: “No one ever really sacrifices themselves. Since every purposeful action is motivated by some personal value or goal, one always acts selfishly, whether one knows it or not.”

This argument is actually 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 book 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 to be 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 its moral value – so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes. This misinterpretation plays, in no small way, directly into our corrupt principles and standards.

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 all higher purpose, since higher purpose is inevitably driven by self fulfillment and realization, which is ostensibly not a virtue but a vice. Self-inflicted pain and unintelligible duty is its only objective. One may at best hope for the occasional sacrifice by others, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for them. But he knows that this relationship brings mutual resentment, not pleasure. He knows that this pursuit of moral values is like an exchange of unwanted, un-chosen gifts, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself.

Yet apart from the dispassionate act of self-sacrifice, one is forbidden higher “Selfish” ambition and fulfillment. Gainful actions have nothing to offer him; it is regarded either as evil or, at best, amoral.

Moreover, since nature does not provide man with an automatic means of survival and since he has to support his life by his own effort, man’s effort to survive is hence, by definition, evil. Man’s life, as such, amounts to evil. No doctrine could be more ludicrous 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?

This whole question of pride is very 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 pride is the driving force of all worthwhile activities. There is obviously significant tension over this problem. And yet the matter is indispensable to anyone who wishes to understand the crucial ethical issues at the root of so many of our cultural debates today—who wants to discover the essence of morality, religion and wholesome living. So how is this inconsistency resolved?    

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.

To understand their theories you would of course have to read their work, 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, even the most lofty and religious, require self purpose and realization, which is inevitably selfish by definition, we can and are required to change and refine the “Self” within the 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.

In summary, the issue of pride, as evident from the Divinely orchestrated humiliation and defeat of Pharaoh and the Pharaoh’s of all of history – which we are enjoined to record and transmit for posterity: “That you may relate in the ears of your son and your son's” – is among the most critical and adverse issues in life. Yet we cannot exist without some degree of it. It’s kind of like the saying: “You can’t live with it; you can’t live without it.”

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)

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.