“By making extraordinary demands, it [Judaism] inspires ordinary people to live extraordinary lives.”
Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World
We leave Passover with a keen sense of historical liberation, but ours was neither an easy freedom nor one that came without responsibility. We left slavery for Sinai; a life of commandedness for a different type of commandedness. This was not obedience for its own sake but for the sake of God and for the sake of becoming a people of transcendence, as is true for all those of faith and belief.
What changed in this transition? Altruism, a feeling or commitment to selflessness, duty and responsibility comes from the French for “the other.” Altruism is an outer directed impulse that pushes down the loud voice of narcissism and self-absorption. It tells us that a purpose-driven life is not one where our own desires matter most. Throughout the Bible, God commands altruism, and it changes us. We become truly free with the capacity to give.
In a recent article, “Ego, Love, and Self-Sacrifice: Altruism in Jewish Thought and Law,” David Shatz, a professor of philosopher and an inspiring teacher, writes that Judaism, “is both realistic and aspirational. It recognizes the reality of self-interest, but affirms the capacity of human beings to escape its grip. It understands that self-interested actions can promote the good of others, but it looks as well at inner intentions and emotions.”
The article is one of many fine essays in Radical Responsibility, an anthology celebrating the thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks as Rabbi Sacks nears retirement. Rabbi Sacks in his extensive writings, makes a compelling case again and again that commandedness can lead to moral greatness and to achieving extraordinariness.
Many would argue that altruism merely masks self-interest. This seems to be supported by a famous Talmudic passage [BT Makkot 28b] that Shatz quotes in his article: “He who eulogizes the deceased will be eulogized at his death; he who buries the dead will be buried when he passes on; he who carries the coffin will be carried by others [when his body is ready for burial]; he who mourns for others will be mourned by others.”
By being present for the ritual needs of others at their most vulnerable, we bolster the chances that we will not be alone in ours. This is not selfish, but it is certainly utilitarian, reminding us of the more positive Yiddish expression of this sentiment, “I will dance at your wedding so you will dance at mine.” The social capital we invest becomes our best insurance policy, but it does not sound particularly altruistic. Love, it would seem, has its limits.
Read differently, however, the passage in the Talmud is not the statement of a person trying to protect himself. It is not stated by him but about him. One who shows particular sensitivity to the needs of others, particularly during trying times, will likely have that sensitivity repaid in the future; we honor those who were selfless by becoming less selfish ourselves. Those who are truly altruistic teach us through their compassion and kindness that we, too, should be more compassionate and kind. They inspire us with their thoughtfulness to become as thoughtful as they are.
Many find the language of command too authoritarian or bossy. I personally find it a comfort. When it’s raining outside, and I’m too tired to pay that shiva call and maybe the mourner won’t even notice, I think of the word “mitzva.” Command. Demand. Responsibility. Obligation. Expectation from on High. Suddenly, that sense of altruism as the clarion call of the other comes to mind. It is not about my creature comforts but about another’s need for human comfort that matters. And usually I get up, and I go. And I never regret it.