Chayei Sarah: Beyond Self-Interest


Hemshech Tzaddik-Dalet Part V

This weekend several thousand leaders, from six continents and over 100 countries, are gathering together in a powerful convention. They are called shluchim. Messengers. This simple name, however, carries within itself volumes of invaluable lessons for each on of us. Lessons that have the power to change your life forever. This essay is in honor of the Annual International Shluchim Conference this weekend in New York.

When it comes to big life issues, we humans have the tendency to avoid drawing very distinct lines. And justly so. Life is far too complex and nuanced to impose a black and white perspective. Grey is the color of choice.

Despite this general rule (which itself, by the logic above, should not be etched in stone), the fact is that there are areas where lines can be drawn. And one primary one is the big choice we make about our careers – where we will invest the bulk of our life energies. In this area we really have only two choices: Will you live your life driven either by self-interest, or by dedication to a higher cause than yourself?

The undisputed argument can be made, that even self-interest can benefit the public. Isn’t that the basis of capitalism: Personal gain and even greed serve as a powerful catalyst to create products and services that benefit the public. Even a self-interest driven individual can be charitable and benevolent. And conversely, even dedication to a higher cause can also be driven by self-interest, in effect, making it just another expression and extension of personal gain and benefit.

Yet, the very clear distinction remains between the primary and secondary drives: One has chosen a life driven by self-interest, which also – as an ancillary element –can happen to benefit others. The latter has chosen a life that is primarily driven by helping others – a cause beyond himself – which also can satisfy his self-interest.

Another key point: You can be involved in your self-interests without anyone else gaining anything. Or your self-interest can be directed toward efforts than benefit many. Like the difference between the two options of putting on a fur coat or lighting a fire to keep warm in a cold room: By donning a fur coat (a tzaddilk in peltz), you serve and keep yourself warm, but no one else. Lighting a fire warms you and everyone else in the room.

Sadly, even religious commitment today, due to its mechanization, has become trapped beneath these two options.

I submit that one of the greatest contributions in our time to counter the inevitable stagnation that results from being content with a self-interest driven life, including religious self-interest, was the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s innovation of the concept of shlichus.

Shlichus literally means “mission.” A shliach is a messenger sent on a mission to serve a cause greater than him or herself: To help others. Every person on Earth is sent here on a mission; your soul was dispatched for you to accomplish a particular assignment, which is your calling.

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the first shlichus in the Bible: Abraham sending Eliezer as his emissary to find a bride for Isaac. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that Eliezer’s mission to join Isaac and Rebecca reflects the general mission of each of our lives: To fuse matter and spirit, body and soul into one seamless union.

Dedicating your life to a cause beyond yourself, unleashes many powerful forces. Firstly, it frees you from the stifling containment of your own orbit – of breathing your own recycled air and that of your natural environment (“ghetto”). Leaving your comfort zones creates challenges that always bring the best out of you. Secondly, it empowers you to become a leader instead of a follower. Finally, and above all, it introduces into your life, your family’s life – and into the universe – an energy of giving instead of taking. You reverse the arrow that is, left to its own accord, inwardly directed toward self-interest – toward “me, me and more me,” and you turn it outward, toward others and the larger world. Like the windows in the Holy Temple, which were narrow on the inside and wide on the outside, in order to allow the transmission of the inner holy light to the outside.

In Kabbalistic and Chassidic terms this is the concept of Ohr, light-energy, whose fundamental property is bittul – the ability to transcend your own ego and self-interest. In our universe made of matter and energy (container and light) – with all matter being essentially energy – we always have a choice: Matter, by nature and by definition, is self-contained, concealing the energy within and denying any root source. Energy is selfless, always pointing to a source (of the energy). Will we choose a life driven by matter and substance, which is selfishly oriented; or will we seek out the energy within which directs us to a higher source?

In our last installment on the continuing series of Hemshech Tzaddik-Dalet – the discourse delivered 75 years ago in Warsaw – we reviewed the three different dimensions of the selfless “energy consciousness.”

After explaining the first dimension, the profound humility of the energy sensing its utter insignificance in face of the energy source, the Rebbe Rayatz goes on (in discourse delivered 75 years ago this week) to define the second, higher level of selflessness: The sense that the energy is entirely dependent and has no being without its source.

There is a fundamental difference between these two dimensions of bittul, though both are a result of the energy’s connection to the source. The first level of bittul is only circumstantial. In face of its source the energy feel utterly nullified. But not that the energy on its own is actually insignificant. Take a candle for example. In the light of the sun, the candle’s flame gives off no light. It actually appears dark in comparison to the sun’s brilliant backdrop. But move the candle away from the presence of the sun into a dark room, then the candle has a very significant presence.

By contrast, the second level of bittul permeates the energy to such a point that it’s very being, even not in the presence of the source, senses that it has no existence of its own, only as a result and extension of its source. The example for this would be sunlight itself: Unlike an independent flame, the sun’s light always “feels” that it cannot exist without the sun.

Applying this to the concept of shlichus – the role each of us plays when we sense ourselves as Divine emissaries on a mission to serve a higher cause (than our own needs) – two possibilities arise in the way we serve as messengers on our missions:

Your dedication to the cause – your bittul – can be one in which you feel yourself utterly humble in face of the cause you represent. Like a student who feels absolutely trivial in the presence of his great teacher. But this feeling does not permeate your entire being. Your ego and personality remains intact, only nullified in the presence of your teacher. Once you leave your master’s presence, you feel very much of a personality.

A higher level of dedication and bittul is one in which your entire being senses that is has no substance and value expect as an extension of it’s source. It’s like being “in the zone,” where you don’t sense yourself at all; the object and the subject, the noun and the adjective, are all one. The messenger feels that his entire being has no substance if not for being a messenger of the sender.

Practically, the difference between these two attitudes is not mere semantics. Take, for example, a situation where a student of a great teacher is faced with a serious dilemma and does not have the ability to consult his master. In the first instance, the student would have no choice but to decide what to do based on his own instincts and knowledge. If he were in the presence of his master, he would of course defer to the master. But now that he is “on his own,” he is left to his own devices.

In the second instance, the student has so absorbed and integrated the teachings and methodologies of his teacher, that even when he is not in the master’s physical presence, the student is never “on his own;” he feels that all his tools and his knowledge are but a mere extension of his teacher’s, and thus he solves the problem not with his own logic, but with the approach of his master that he has utterly assimilated.

To move from the first to the second level student/shliach is not just a matter of “wiring” or feelings (hergesh), as if to say that some people are simply not capable of reaching the higher level of dedication. Every student has the ability, with effort and hard work, to reach a point that he can This requires commitment, devotion, and immersion into the teachings and spirit of the master’s thoughts and methodologies, to the point where the student’s mind, heart and sprit reflect and become one with the master’s.

This is one reason why the Torah commands us to “know thy G-d,” not just to believe but to study, probe and understand G-d and His ways. Faith alone connects you with the Divine. But on its own it hasn’t yet transformed you, the person. In the name of faith you defer and surrender to a Higher Will. But where do you, as an individual, remain standing? When faith is integrated into your system – your mind and heart – then you become transformed into an instrument: Your mind channels a higher intelligence and state of consciousness, your heart channels a higher state of emotions, and your actions, your arms and legs and your entire body, manifest a higher, refined state of behavior. You and your faculties have become, in effect, agents of higher energy.

* * *

People marvel at the fact that Chabad shluchim cover the globe. Wherever there is Coca-Cola you can find Chabad. Others talk about their great dedication, no matter what they will never leave their job.

I humbly submit, that the greatest story of all, is the fact that the Rebbe understood the need to empower and to create proactive individuals, who would transcend self-interest, or harness their self-interest for the good of the greater cause. Especially in times of freedom and prosperity (notwithstanding the current economic meltdown) it is so easy to gravitate to a state of complacency and passivity, immersed and engulfed by self-interest.

The model of shlichus – that an individual, or a couple, leave their comfort zone and self-orbiting life and go out to build communities – is a model for us all: the ultimate antidote to modern-day self-indulgence.

And this model itself we have the two possibilities discussed above, one deeper than the next in the emissary’s dedication to the higher cause.

But before you get too excited, there is yet another, third and even more profound dimension of bittul. Stay tuned.


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15 years ago

Simon – I found “Beyond Self-Interest” extremely thought provoking especially because my partner and have devoted our lives to helping others with their life and career direction. Thank you – David

Aden Ratner-Stauber
15 years ago

wow that was so inspiration and amazing
thank you!

Ana Baladão
15 years ago

As I know the work done by Rebbe Liberoff and his wife, Mimi, in the Beit Chabad Porto Alegre, Brazil, I could very much appreciate your text.
Thank you.

8 years ago

did you ever finish this commentary on Tzaddik Daled??

thanks for all you do

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