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Addition Through Subtraction

Addition Through Subtraction

Ethics 1:14

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Is it wrong to be selfish?

In the immortal words of the famous first century sage Hillel: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?..." In other words: I need to look after myself; who else should?

So where's the problem with selfishness? For that, we need to consider the rest of Hillel's statement: "…And if I am only for myself, then what am I?"

Hillel tells me that when I'm taking care of myself so that I might fulfill my responsibilities to the world, that's fine. But when I'm looking out for myself because I'm the center of the universe, then we have a problem.

If everything is about me, then – in the final analysis – "what am I?"

The problem doesn't lie in me looking after myself. The problem arises when I can't see a purpose beyond myself.

Sometimes we have the "it's all about me" mindset, and that inevitably causes problems in our lives.

"Circumcising" my conduct means cutting through my layers of self-indulgenceThat's why the Torah (Deuteronomy 10:16) calls for us to "circumcise the foreskin of our hearts." Since this obviously can't refer to a physical covering, our Sages tell us that the Torah is referring to the self-indulgent "overlay" that prevents us from truly connecting with others. In this exercise, we're targeting a psycho-spiritual "membrane" of self-centeredness, which turns self-reliance into self-absorption.

The Torah is telling us that we need to cut through this stifling approach to life, to liberate our hearts and souls.

How?

From the outside in.

We start with the external behavior. "Circumcising" my conduct means cutting through my layers of self-indulgence.

For example: Even though I'm not hurting anyone by gorging myself on a scrumptious meal, I am exercising my "self-absorption muscle," and opening the door to a chain of me-centeredness; which will automatically leave less room for we-centeredness.

The circumcision process peels away the unhealthy layers, so that there's less self-absorption in the way we act, and in the way we speak.

And then we can take the step of peeling the overlays – the divisive blockages – from our hearts and minds.

A lifetime of experiences, dotted with disappointments, hurts and failures, can make someone build up pretty strong emotional walls, barriers that can keep you locked into a lonely world.

By healthily penetrating our obstructive layers, we can begin to truly take care of ourselves, by finding our interdependent place in a meaningful world.

Rabbi Mendy Herson is director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
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Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.
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