Be selfish so you can be selfless.
In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writing “Entering the Synagogue,” he asks:
“What does a person expect to attain when entering the synagogue? In pursuit of learning, one goes to a library; for aesthetic enrichment, one goes to the art museum; for pure music, to the concert hall. What then, is the purpose of going to the synagogue?
Where should one learn the general wisdom of compassion? The fear of being cruel? The danger of being callous? Where should one learn that the greatest truth is found in contrition? We are all in danger of sinking into the darkness of vanity; we are all involved in worshipping our own egos. Where should we become sensitive to all the pitfalls of cleverness, or to the realization that expediency is not the acme of wisdom?
We are constantly in need of experiencing moments in which the spiritual is as relevant and as concrete, for example, as the aesthetic. Everyone has a sense of beauty; everyone is capable of distinguishing between the beautiful and the ugly. But we must learn to be sensitive to the spirit. It is in the synagogue where we must try to acquire such inwardness, such sensitivity.”
Yom Kippur often comes with a sense of stillness and quietness. We enter the sanctuary thinking deeply about how we can acquire that sensitivity and spiritual connection that will help us be better in the coming year. At this time of year we think a lot about how we have wronged others, how we could have been better to the environment, to the poor and the needy, to our partners and our children. Sometimes, we overlook the ways we have been unfair to ourselves. Maybe, in order to be selfless, we must first learn to be selfish.
Gary Vaynerchuk, an investor, entrepreneur, and podcaster who was born a Jew in the Former Soviet Union and emigrated with his parents to the United states in the late 1970s writes:
The key to being able to actually give, and attempt to make others happy, is that you’ve already found that happiness for yourself. And so, it allows you to reverse engineer your life and really understand why it is that you are happy, so you can then help others with what you know.
It’s just like going to the gym and getting trained by someone who is out of shape. You have to have had the experience, and be a practitioner of your own words for the best chance of seeing results. You can’t give and make others happy over the long term, if you yourself are not happy first.
Another key mistake he says...is that people aren’t always self aware and they don’t realize they’re not actually that happy. The reason they are giving is because they expect something in return that they think is going to make them happy.
It’s what he calls “double selfishness.” Giving with expectation which is the single biggest mistake anyone can make. To truly be selfless, you have to give without expectation.
Being selfish is the gateway to selflessness, because you learn to take care of your own personal needs first in order to use that as collateral later so that you can really, truly help.
Recently, I came across a list of seven rules to live by that might assist us in this practice of finding space and time to focus on our own personal needs, so we can in turn help the others that we are committed to and to help those we are commanded to.
Number One—Make peace with your past so that it does not spoil your present.
We have all made mistakes. None of us is perfect. That is why each year we do the same thing. We come to the synagogue, we recognize our collective sin as a community, as a Jewish people, and we ask for forgiveness.
Cheit, one of the Hebrew words for sin, is actually a term that comes from archery and means “to miss the mark.” With focus and with practice, we have the opportunity to get closer to the mark each time we miss it.
Talmud teaches that once we have properly repented for our sins we are forgiven, and we are considered to have been purified.
While we are encouraged to repent for our sins and learn from them, we are not taught to carry them with us for all of time. We are instructed to make peace with our past and move forward.
Number Two—What others think of you is none of your business.
No matter how hard we try, we can not decide how others will see us or what they will think about us. Nor do we get to interpret our words and actions for them. Therefore, we should not waste our time and energy trying to be who we think someone else wants us to be.
Of course this does not mean that we won’t care what others think about us, or what they say about us. We are human beings filled with emotions and feelings, and we can’t just turn that off. But, if we choose to treat what others think of us as none of our business, then we have the opportunity to shift our focus to what we think of ourselves.
Number Three—Time heals almost everything—give the time some time.
In Judaism, everything we do is based on time. Traditionally, we are instructed to pray three times a day at specific times. Each Friday when the sun goes down, Shabbat begins, and when the sun goes down on Saturday the new week begins. We celebrate the beginning of each new month with the Rosh Chodesh service (literally meaning the head of the month). And each year, at this time, we are given the opportunity to start the year with a clean slate.
Our modern lives are also based on time. What time we have to wake up, to be at work or at school. What time the store closes that we need to get to. What time we will eat our meals. What time to walk the dog. What time to be at the football game or at band practice. What time to set aside for our partners and our families.
Everything we do is on a schedule based on how much time we have in a day, a week a month, a year. When we get stressed out, when we are upset, when we are angry, just remember that time can heal almost everything.
Number Four—No one is the reason for your happiness except yourself.
Earlier I talked about being selfish before we can be selfless. This rule speaks directly to that. It is so important to find what makes us happy and do it. If you love to practice yoga, find a class or do it at home. If you love to play music, then grab your instrument and make some noise. If you like to cook, or knit, or run, or read then find the time in that busy schedule and pencil it in.
We can not put our happiness on hold, or in the hands of anyone else. In order to maintain healthy relationships, we all have do to a little work on ourselves. We are in control of our own happiness, and we should all harness that control and embrace it.
Number Five—Do not compare your life with others because you have no idea what their journey is all about.
We live in a competitive world. We are often taught that winning is the greatest achievement; being first in line, number one in the class, CEO, President, state, national and world champions. But there is no way we can all be at the top, society simple does not function that way… and I don’t think God intended it to. Each one of us has something that makes us special. We are all on our own journey through life, and that means that we do not need to concern ourselves with comparing our journey to someone else’s. We will all have successes, and we will all have failures.
If you must define life through comparison, compare yourself to yourself. Focus on reading more books than you did last year, or calling your friend more often than you did last month, or running a faster mile that you did last week. Try to hone your skills and be the best personal you that you can be.
Number Six—Stop thinking too much. It is all right not to know the answers.
I want to be clear that I am not suggesting you stop thinking all together, or that you stop learning. Lifelong learning is one of the greatest gifts that Judaism give us. The ancient rabbis did what they called maklochet (literally meaning argument) over the Torah in Mishnah and Talmud trying to decipher what it was saying. And we continue to have these debates today. In the reform movement, we take ancient texts and traditions and find ways to observe them in our modern world.
I interpret this to mean that we do not always have to have the answer on hand. It is okay not to be right all the time. It is okay to make mistakes. These are some of the greatest ways a person can learn. If we don’t have an answer, rather than trying to think something up on the spot, we should learn to say “I don’t know, but I will do some research and get back to you.” Although, this practice is not designed for tests at school, those we must prepare for. Either way if we make a mistake or get something wrong, we should take the time to reflect on it so see how we can do better in the future.
Finally, Number Seven—Smile, you do not own all the problems in the world.
I struggle a little bit with this one, because I am not sure that we should be smiling about all of the problems in the world which are not our problems. What I think it is trying to say…or what I would change it to, is “breathe, the weight of the world’s problems are not all on your shoulders.” Of course we can have an impact on making the world a better place. This is what we do when we practice Tikkun Olam. But we can not be held responsible for every problem in the world, and we should not allow all of those problems to consume us and get in the way of all the other important things that life has to offer, like happiness, and learning, and time.
So, while you sit today and focus your energy on prayer, and maybe on fasting, take a moment to focus some of it on yourself. Think about what you can do in the coming year to love and honor yourself. And if later this year, or this month, you are struggling to remember yourself, try entering the synagogue as Heschel suggests to search for stillness, and learn to be sensitive to the spirit. For it is in the synagogue where we must try to acquire such inwardness, such sensitivity.
**Kol Nidre 2018/5779