There was once a woman who had a very serious problem. She was 26 years old and as lonely as a stone in a field. She didn’t have a single friend, couldn’t get along with anyone, and couldn’t maintain a relationship. Why? Because, to put it bluntly, her behaviour was obnoxious. She was petty, she was selfish, she was jealous and she was cruel. She tried desperately to control her negative traits, and spent years in every kind of counseling and therapy, without success.

When she thought she had reached the end of her rope, she heard that there was a wise, saintly man in Brooklyn who might be able to help her with her problem: Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, leader of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch She was petty, selfish and jealous movement. She came to him and presented him with an eight-page analysis of her problem.

The venerable rabbi, known as the Rebbe, gave her some very simple advice. He told her that when she returned to the college campus where she was attending school, she should make it a habit to serve other people during meals.

“Whatever it is that someone else might need,” the Rebbe said, “the butter, the sugar, the salt, a glass of water, whatever it is, it should become your habit to bring it to them.” The woman was relieved. Instead of analyzing her, the Rebbe had given her something she could actually do.

Looking back, she saw it this way: “A selfish, petty, egotistical person came to the Rebbe and said, ‘Rebbe, I need advice. I don’t know what to do. I’m not a nice person. What should I do?’

“And the Rebbe said, in effect, ‘Not nice? So be nice. What’s the question? You don’t like being not nice? So, who’s forcing you? You want to be nice? Good. Then here’s how you start: Bring somebody a glass of water.’”

In other words, if you’re not a nice person, don’t stop and analyze it. Just start thinking, speaking and acting in a nice manner.

This story was originally told by Rabbi Manis Friedman in "Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?"

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the 10 plagues that G‑d visited upon the Egyptians, and Pharaoh’s final capitulation before letting the Jews leave. It’s a fascinating story, filled with drama and excitement, and we recount it each year at the Passover Seder.

At its most basic level, the Torah is describing an actual series of historical events, peopled by a cast of real-life characters. But the story can also be read as an allegory of our collective soul-journey from the darkness that is exile towards the freedom to worship G‑d on His terms. From this perspective, the Egyptians represent the forces of unadulterated evil, while the 10 plagues are stages in the gradual abnegation of ego and the process of revealing G‑d’s active presence on this world.

So, for example, after eight previous stages, the ninth plague of darkness is described in the Torah as “thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days. No man saw his fellow and no one rose from his place for three days.”1

Read at its most literal level, the Torah is simply describing the cloyingly thick veil of darkness that descended on the Egyptians, trapping them in their homes for three days in a row, unable to see each other or even to stand up straight. However, implicit within the text is also a profound moral teaching: The true definition of darkness is a person who cannot The darkness was not a punishment“see his fellow” or respond to his needs. And someone who doesn’t care about the needs of others will never “rise from his place.” He’ll be stuck in the same rut for the rest of his life, unhappy with himself but unable to change for the better.

So the darkness was not just a punishment for the Egyptians’ sins. It was a manifestation of their lack of empathy and caring.

It takes a Moses to point out the artificiality and instability of our present existence. A true leader will tell you that if you want to like yourself and want to be admired, don’t waste your time sitting around in your current darkness—get up and be of service to another. If you can learn this lesson, thinking and caring about friends and strangers before you worry about yourself, then eventually you’ll be able to free yourself from your own private gloom and start along the path to the Promised Land.