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  • Writer's pictureRuth Schapira

Egoism versus Altruism

When we think of the word egotistical, it often has negative connotations. However, it is interesting to note that over time, our culture has gotten more and more focused on the self. There's so much posting about what someone is doing, thinking, creating, wearing, eating...that it's hard to think about what things were like before we were inundated with phones that snap.

In our culture, individuality is overrated. We live in complicated times in which so many issues of great consequence are whittled down to one's own self-interest. For one, there is an over obsession with our outward appearance. It might have started with the penchant for "selfies" which comically captures this concept, but the reality goes far deeper. Decades ago, the classic book "Bowling Alone" (Putnam, 1995) spoke about the decline in social capital.

In addition, the explosion of social media has created a ripe venue in which we can promote ourselves (either posts of joy or unfortunately even loss) for others to respond to. Both Instagram and Facebook are built upon this notion and reinforce it with every scroll and click.

Societal breakdown is the result of these and so many other factors ---- and it seems to have gotten worse. We have lost our capacity to think beyond ourselves and our own self-interest.

What do we need to learn that we haven't yet?

How will things begin to change?

The Zohar, (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, 2nd and 3rd century CE) part of the literature of Jewish mystical thought, sees things from a totally opposite perspective. An updated commentary (Laitman, 2007) gives us this stunning frame of reference (updated translation my own):

After being born in our world, you are obliged to change your heart from egoistic to altruistic, while living in this world.
This is the purpose of your life, the reason behind your appearance in this world, and it is the goal of all creation.

So, our work is the opposite of what is trending. Talk about Judaism being counter-cultural...this will not be easy. The shedding of ego is not just a nice idea, and it absolutely does not mean a loss of our individuality. On the contrary, we are to use our unique gifts in service of the whole, not just for our own glorification. This takes work and focus on a daily basis.

It also takes knowing your own traits, your talents......ultimately your own individuality.

The key however, is using those talents for a greater purpose.

We understand the concept of being egotistical, and sometimes think that it applies to others, but not ourselves. When we see someone taking up too much space in a room, or vying for attention, the word egotistical comes to mind. But that's not the spiritual concept of the word. Being egotistical in a spiritual sense is a lack of acknowledgment that there is a universal force beyond your own self.

In order for you to give up your ego, you need to recognize that you are answerable to something, some entity, greater than yourself. That is where the lack of ego comes from. What you do must be for the sake of some greater purpose.

The Torah contains an exorbitant amount of information for constructing a good and benevolent society, but it means nothing unless we are consciously acting in ethical ways.

Living through Torah means that our consciousness is raised with every decision, every word that comes out of our mouths, every action we take.

Thought. Intention. Behavior.

Not so simple...but now we have what to strive for.


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