Baila Lesches, Brooklyn, NY
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
These days, there is one universal question that exists within every language and nation: “What’s in it for me?”
This sentence—a question which accurately describes the prevalent selfishness that drives just about every dollar we make and activity we put into our schedules—is one that each of us encounter on a daily basis, one that we’ve already stopped feeling guilty thinking about. It’s so normal for us to make money in order to fill shopping carts and go on vacations, to gossip about other people to make us look like the hero, and to walk by someone who needs help simply because we aren’t in the mood. We don’t even think twice when our schedules include nothing more substantial than self-centered eating, working, doing things we like, checking our phones, and sleeping.
At the end of the day, if we’d sit down and honestly ask ourselves to name a few things we did or said, purely because we had the good of another person or thing in mind, we’d find ourselves with embarrassing results.
What causes this attitude? Why is it so prevalent, and, more importantly, what can we do to free ourselves from this mentality?
Sources & Terms
In this essay, we will be exploring Chassidic methodology, based on the foundational passuk of Tanya. This methodology can be applied to solve many issues, but this essay will focus specifically on overcoming selfishness. We will also be covering central themes of Chassidus, including hisbonenus, dirah batachtonim and bittul.
Preface to Solution
Before coming to the three-part, Chassidic strategy that counters leading self-centered, selfish lives, we must first backtrack to the very basis of Chassidus to understand the method used in this essay.
Chassidus Chabad is based on the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya, which revolves around the passuk: “ki karov eilecha hadavar me’od, b’ficha u’bilvavcha la’asoso.” After a lengthy discussion what this passuk actually means, Tanya concludes that it translates thus:
ki karov eilecha hadavar me’od – it’s very attainable for you
B’ficha – to learn Torah and Chassidus
U’bilvavcha – which will lead you to have enough love and fear of Hashem
La’asoso – to do what He tells us to and bring Moshiach. (1)
The technique we will explore in this essay is based upon this fundamental principle of Chassidus: That through contemplation, we achieve feelings that lead to action, which makes the world a better place. (2)
Step one: Contemplate
The secular worldview clashes tremendously with the Chassidic worldview. While society keeps itself busy rallying for the government to give everyone more rights because they deserve them, Chassidus teaches us that we’re here to serve, not to be served. We’re here for a purpose, and it’s a shame to put our own selves at the center when there’s something so much greater to focus on.
In Basi Legani, the purpose of our existence is clearly outlined. It says: “The purpose of creation is because Hashem desired that people work to make a dirah batachtonim, a home for Himself in this world, so G-dliness could be revealed down here.” (3)
Hashem always was, is, and will be in the world.(4) So what does it mean that He wants us to make a home for Him in this world, if He’s here anyway? What kind of purpose is this if Hashem is already present?
The answer lies within the difference between being a guest and being at home. As a guest, you wouldn’t act like you would in your own home. You wouldn’t feel free to sing loudly and kick off your shoes after a long day of work. A person is most comfortable, most free to be himself, in his own home.
This mirrors the concept of dirah batachtonim, creating a dwelling place for Hashem down here. Yes, Hashem is here always. But there are certain things we have to elevate and refine for Him to feel fully at home and comfortable in this world. We accomplish this by learning Torah and doing mitzvos, the instructions Hashem gave us to help us with our mission. When Moshiach comes, when the purpose of creation is fulfilled, Hashem will have a home down here. He’ll be free to express Himself fully, and the whole world will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem. (5)
Nowhere does Chassidus mention ourselves as the purpose. Nowhere does it mention that we’re here to make ourselves feel good. It’s about Hashem, about working hard to make the world a beautiful enough place for Him to feel comfortable in. The dirah batachtonim that He wants, the home for Him in this world, is built one good deed at a time. By who? By us. The reason Hashem created us, as Chassidus states, is not to add more things to our Amazon shopping bag, but rather to add good deeds into our schedules. It’s about bettering and beautifying the world, one good deed at a time.
The first step in the Chassidic approach to freeing ourselves of selfishness is contemplating our purpose. Contemplation, hisbonenus, isn’t just when you know about a concept and move on; it requires serious concentration and effort, until it becomes something that you wake up and fall asleep thinking about. It should be a thought process that follows you around and leaves you no rest until you explore every possible angle.(6) The first step is to own the above mentioned concept; if it’s the reason you’re here, it’s probably worth the effort to figure out.
Step two: Feel
After carrying out the first step, you’ll notice a shift occur: When faced with a decision, instead of feeling self-centered, you will find yourself considering the feelings and needs of others. Suddenly, you won’t take centerstage. You will feel as though there is something higher, something bigger, that you have an obligation toward.
The deep knowledge of why we’re here in this world, which comes from contemplating upon the Chassidic worldview of our ultimate purpose, leads to a sense of bittul. Bittul is the feeling that you’re here to serve, that you’re not the only one who matters. It’s when you decide to do what Hashem wants, not what you want. This feeling leaves room for others, and knows nothing of selfishness. (7)
If you feel the first step didn’t achieve this result, try contemplating about it in a deeper, more personal way. If you’re hearing this idea about the purpose of existence for the first time, or even if you grew up knowing it, you still have to do the necessary work to transform the information into something that you own. This awareness of something higher than self, this sense of bittul, doesn’t happen overnight.
Step Three: Act
Immediately following the initial effort of contemplation and the sense of bittul that comes as a result, there’s a third and final stage that affects the way you act. After all, that’s how real change happens: Once someone internalizes new information, his perspective changes, which causes him to act in ways that are in sync with his new perspective. (8)
Once you know that you’re here to make the world a beautiful place, and you start feeling that this purpose—not your ego—is the focus, your actions will shift as well. When you have a choice between spending your hard earned money on an expensive vacation or donating it to a worthy cause, figuring out the right thing to do won’t be so difficult. When you’re in a rush and someone asks for your help, you’ll be ready to put yourself aside for what really matters. You will find yourself excited to help out another person, to do another mitzvah. Your schedule will turn from a selfish one to one that includes acts of kindness, charity, and more good deeds. Every time you do a good deed, a mitzvah, you express the bittul created through contemplation. You could have done a thousand different things, but you chose to do what Hashem wanted you to, simply because His will comes first. This is the complete opposite of selfishness.
It Works in Reverse
There is, however, one catch to the Chassidic method of getting rid of selfishness: it must lead to the third stage, because action is the main focus. Intellect and emotion are nice, but if you find yourself getting caught up in the intellectual and emotional steps for too long, and they simply aren’t working to redefine how you act, you missed the point.(9) Plunge straight into action, and by slowly training yourself to look out for other people and put their needs before your own, you will come to realize that you’re not the only one who matters. You’ll become aware that you have a specific purpose to fulfill. If steps one and two didn’t help you reach step three, allow step three to help you reach step one and two. Take, for example, the dieting method. Some people first read about the harmful effects of sugar, feel disgusted by it, and then stop eating it. Others get the same results, but the process happens in reverse. The first thing they do it quit eating sugar. It’s hard, but they go for it. Over time, they realize how much better they feel without it and feel disgusted by it, and then they understand that, yes, sugar is bad for them.
In our case, the Chassidic method in reverse would look something like this:
Act: Do good deeds, without thinking about what you’ll gain from it. Give extra money to charity and help another person out. Consistently put someone else before yourself.
Feel: Every good deed you do is another act of bittul, of putting another person’s needs before your own. With every selfless act, you will feel more space to give to another person; giving will become less challenging.
Contemplate: Training yourself to help other people and feel a sense of bittul will soon penetrate deeply enough for you to understand that you’re not here for yourself, and there’s a higher purpose.
The fundamental principle of Chassidus, that through contemplation, we achieve feelings that lead to action, can be used to solve many difficult problems, including selfishness. This method isn’t confined to its order, but can work in reverse as well.
There are so many stories of the Rebbe advising those who were depressed to focus on helping others, instead of their personal situations, in order to effect change. Mivtzoyim, the act of getting a fellow Jew to do a mitzvah, doesn’t include philosophizing or debating. The Rebbe went straight to the point—because at the end of the day, action is what matters. At first, you will find that it’s hard to give to others when all you want is to take for yourself. But when you help other people for long enough, you forget about your own ego and make room to act selflessly. Yes, if you skip straight to action, you might not feel for what you’re doing, and it might be challenging, but the feelings will come later, once you accustom yourself to putting others before yourself.
The Chassidic method to get rid of selfishness outlined earlier is good – if you’re up to it. The natural way to eat a meal is to first have an appetizer, then the main course, and then desert. But if you haven’t eaten all day, and there’s a piece of cake in front of you, you won’t wait for the first two courses. Take what you can get, and hope the first two will come later. If you’re able to think clearly and make your purpose in life personal enough that it affects the emotions that drive your actions, great. If you can’t, remember that the method works backward too, and just do the actions. Just do selfless acts. Give a bit of the money you earned to someone who’s in need. Give of your time to help your sibling, your friend, your parent. Give someone a smile wider than you’d like to give, and listen more to the one who needs your help. Take the last step of the Chassidic method and run with it, and pray there will be a shift not only within your actions, but deep within yourself as well.
1 Tanya, Ch. 17
2 Tanya, Ch. 44
3 5711, ch. 7; 5731, ch. 3
4 Maamer Adon Alom 5713, 5743
5 Tanya, Ch. 36
6 Maamer Marg’loh B’Pumei D’Rava, 5740
7 Maamer Marg’loh B’Pumei D’Rava, 5740
8 Tanya ch. 37 as explained in Sichas Parshas Noach 5725, and Tanya ch. 12
9 See Hitva’aduyot 5744, Vol. 4, p. 2168 and multiple sources