Storming Heaven


Selfless in a Selfish World

Can one be selfless in a selfish world? This is one of the great moral questions plaguing mankind from the beginning of time.

Some argue that all people are fundamentally selfish creatures, driven by self-interest and survival. Even when we see glimpses of nobility, these are but anomalies amidst the predominant narcissism of the human race. Others adamantly disagree and feel that the human soul, created in the Divine Image, is fully capable of selfless behavior.

But, even according to this altruistic view, it is undoubtedly difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a selfless attitude amidst all the selfishness surrounding us. The only way to preserve our integrity, this perspective claims, is by separating ourselves (to some extent) from the powerful social currents and pressures to conform and compromise our selfless souls in order to compete and survive in an embattled environment driven by “survival of the fittest.” Some form of asceticism seems necessary in order to remain moral in an immoral world.

Where then does that leave us? It’s seems like an impossible choice: Either we must succumb to some selfishness in order to make it; or we have to remove ourselves from regular life to protect our virtue.

An enigmatic debate in… heaven (of all places) about the leper (of all things) in this week’s Torah portion, resolved by a human (of all creatures), sheds light on this timeless dilemma.

The Talmud relates the following episode (Bava Metzia 86a):

It was debated in the academy of heaven: If the white patch precedes the white hair, it is impure; if the white hair precedes the white patch, it is pure; but what if there is doubt (as to which came first)? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: “It is pure.”

The entire academy of heaven said: “It is impure.” Said they: “Who shall decide it for us? Rabbah bar Nachmeini.” For Rabbah bar Nachmeini had declared: “I am singular in the laws of tzaraat (leprosy)…” They dispatched a messenger [to bring him to heaven]… Said [Rabbah]: “Tahor, tahor (‘Pure, pure’).”

This exchange seems strange from beginning to end. First of all, aren’t debates exclusive to the human condition on earth, where there are doubts and conflicting interests between mortals? How is there room for a debate in heaven where everything should seem clear and true, without any acrimony and disagreement?

Even more perplexing is the fact that the “entire academy of heaven” is arguing and disagreeing with “The Holy One, Blessed be He”? It’s one thing that flawed and arrogant humans on earth should quarrel with G-d (and feel entitled to do so), but how is it possible that an “academy in heaven,” and all its members without exception, should dispute G-d’s opinion, and in a Torah matter?! Wouldn’t G-d be the best One to interpret a law in His Own Torah?!

And what exactly is the argument about? “White patches” and “white hairs,” and which precedes which! Does G-d have nothing better to do then debate the intricacies of leper laws? (He could leave that for Rabbis to debate endlessly…) Doesn’t G-d have more serious problems to address – say, help alleviate our human suffering – than to quibble about these nuances?

And who is this Rabbah bar Nachmeini and what is the significance of him resolving this dispute? Commentaries explain that “Torah is not in heaven,” and therefore the legal ruling must be determined from a sage in Earth? But what did Rabbah bar Nachmeini know more than G-d to rule accordingly?

Cryptic is definitely an appropriate way to describe this Talmudic passage.

Chassidic thought offers us an absolutely eloquent explanation, demonstrating how a seemingly obscure Talmud is both brilliantly coherent as well as illuminates for us one of the most fundamental and relevant lessons in the human moral struggle.

The laws of the “leprous curse” (negah tzaraat), discussed in this week’s double Torah sections of Tazria (Leviticus 12-13) and Metzora (14-15), is in essence the story of spiritual illness – a misalignment between the body and the soul, between our material drives and our transcendent yearnings, between who you are and what you do, resulting in the battle between matter and spirit and all the other struggles that plague human beings.

Tumah (usually inadequately translated as impurity) is a state of negative energy, made possible when the body is not aligned with the soul’s life force. Every illness (physical or spiritual) is some form of compromise of one’s life energy not being able to flow smoothly and seamlessly through the entire body.

The psychological root of the negative energy (tumah) in spiritual illness is arrogance: When someone is selfishly consumed with his own interests, blocking out others needs, his soul energy is drained from him. G-d, the Talmud says, cannot dwell under the same canopy together with an arrogant person; there simply is no room for both… (Healing this disease therefore requires immersion in a mikvah, called tevilah, which is the same letters as bittul, selflessness – the antithesis and antidote to arrogance).

Thus, the identifying mark of a leper was a “white patch” appearing on his skin (or in other areas of his environment) and “white hairs” growing from that spot, reflecting that the soul’s life and vitality (“blood is the life/soul”, dam hu ha’nefesh) have been drained from this part of the body.

Still, a white patch alone does not yet indicate a negative state (“tumah”). But when we see white hairs sprouting in the white patch — when we see dead things feeding on this dead place, indicating that the lifelessness has given birth to selfish characteristics and behaviors of the person — we have a full-blown case of spiritual illness (tumat (tzaraat). We all have potential elements of arrogance in our beings, but when the arrogance takes hold and become a breeding ground for the ugliest in human nature. Such a condition indicates that the person has to some extent abandoned his commitments to life and productivity, leaving behind a hollow, selfish and lifeless self that is a breeding ground for what is worst in human nature.

Hence the law that a white hair is a symptom of tzaraat only when “the white patch precedes the white hair,” indicating that this dead growth is the result of a certain area of the person’s life having been drained of its vitality.

With this backdrop we can now makes sense of the debate raging in heaven between the “The Holy One” and the “academy of heaven.” From the perspective of a perfect, sublime heaven earth is an inferior reality, fraught with selfishness and arrogance, which is simply intolerable and repulsive. Thus, if there is even a shred of doubt as to whether the “white hair” came before or after the “white patch,” the “academy of heaven” declares this as a case of disease. Heaven’s perspective is that man is inherently selfish, and even when he may appear pure, arrogance is always brewing just beneath the surface, waiting to rear its ugly head. If it’s possible that arrogance has taken hold, we must suspect that it has indeed occurred.

“The Holy One” however, who transcends event the perfection of heaven, and Who created the human in His Image, sees man as an essentially a selfless being. From the perspective of the Divine soul spiritual disease and arrogance is an anomaly (as the Zohar incredulously declares: “nefesh ki sechta, tevoha!” a soul to sin – how is it possible?!). If there is clear and conclusive evidence that a person’s arrogance has contaminated his life, we then can consider that the disease has taken hold. But where there is doubt, this divine perspective is inclined to declare him “pure.”

But this still suggests that to be selfless and pure one has to remove himself from earthy desires and elevate to a heavenly state. True, the Divine perspective sees man as essentially pure and selfless (as opposed to the heavenly academy, which sees primarily the impurity), but only by virtue of man’s Divine soul. The questions remains: Can man – as a soul in a very physical and selfish body – also experience selflessness and purity?

Enter Rabba bar Nachmeini, who delivers the verdict: G-d vested the power of the Divine Essence (Atzmus) in the human being on Earth – a power greater than heaven itself, even greater (kavyochol) than “The Holy One” Himself (which refers to the Divine dimension that transcends existence, but not the Divine Essence) – to determine the Torah ruling whether corporeal humans are inherently selfish or selfless.

Rabbah bar Nachmeini was “singular in the laws of tzaraat.” He was a human being, but a human being who had so thoroughly refined himself, so deeply devoted himself to the Divine Torah that he had uncovered its singular core—uncovered the divine vision of reality, seamless and pure, as it relates to the very essence of G-d.

And the verdict? Rabba bar Nachmeini declares – for all time – that man is: Pure, Pure! Pure in his soul, but also pure in his body.

This week we all have the power to be microcosmic Rabbah bar Nachmeini’s: As we ponder the laws of human selfishness and selflessness – as we look at others, as well as at ourselves – what do we see?

The “heaven” within may see impurity and arrogance. The pure eyes of the Divine emanation may see purity and selflessness. But then “singular” human on earth, the one who struggles daily with self interest and selfish desires, has the power of the Essence: To see not one dimension of purity, but two: How even our self-contained physical beings can and are channels for utter selflessness.

It all depends on the eyes we use to look at ourselves and at others. Projection. Look with selfish eyes and you see selfishness all around you. Peer with selfless eyes and you see selflessness all around you.


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
miriam rhodes
14 years ago

thanks and regards

14 years ago

I love this commentary.

This is why the Cohen, man of kindness, is the one to declare pure or impure, b/c he looks for the deepest dimension, to be able to find the good.

14 years ago

Re last paragraph of piece, how would you define selfless eyes and how would you describe the one who might have such? The context borders a bit on seeing always through rose colored glasses or seeing in others only that potential for good and not seeing their actualization in bad.

Samuel Bradley
1 year ago
Reply to  j.j.cabouch

Selfless eyes cast no Judgement, not seeing anything good or bad in others, just sharing of yourself honestly.

14 years ago

Just reading the last few lines, reminds me that we are indeed part of an infinite divinity available to us in every moment, and that the light is always present. I was uplifted and reminded (which I need often!) that life truly is a splendorous gift and we can shape it by how we choose to see the things and people around us. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change! (I think thats a Wayne Dyer quote. 🙂 Thank you, Rabbi Jacobson, for another inspiring article!

10 years ago

this is a very important article because it shows the capability of humans to see beyond the capacity even of heaven , this is why the ultimate redemption will happen on earth.

7 years ago

Great Article. The fact that the entire heavenly retinue could not see the potential for purity in man suggests a reason that humankind is considered superior to the angels. Unlike spiritual souls that have never been in a body, man has the potential to live his/her life in a physical body and a world of the most intense concealment and still emerge pure.

Pamela Scudder
7 years ago

I liked this essay until the last sentence. Sure, it is true that a selfish person projects his own selfishness onto others. But a truly selfless person has a tendency to become a victim of selfishness, and to think his own goodness and devotion to God demands of him that he always be the giving one, compensating for the selfishness of others. But this easily ends up feeding what is essentially egotism in others without having any effect of convicting them of their sin. And this is especially true if the good and giving person thinks he is simply being kind to a weak person who expresses his or her deep neediness by being demanding and selfish. Feeding worldly weakness is not different from feeding worldly power in that both are sin with sin’s evil effects. So I think we need to be like those who study Talmud and see the complexity of the situation — which asks that we be as innocent as doves, but as wise as serpents.

Samuel Bradley
1 year ago
Reply to  Pamela Scudder

Selfless do not think God demands it from them, they just do it, no need to convince others of their sins, they live with them each day, cast no Judgement and be innocent in intention. Selfish people can destroy selflessness or can take advantage of it. so the selfless have to be wise not to be taken advantage of, which in itself is a type of being selfish. Peace and love

C. Hoch
4 years ago

To admit of that level of consciousness demands a high moral character and a constant pursuit of the truth. I don’t believe it’s idealistic, it is a stand on insisting that there is a dimension that requires one to look above the material and physical outward appearance and value the neshama and the moral compass we all have and sometimes take for granted. Whether the white patch or the white hair came first or last we must make an accounting whether we identify with our neshama’s mission in this world.

1 year ago

Amen! Moshiach now!

The Meaningful Life Center