Needy or needed?
Judaism’s Worldview: A New Series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
While attending a conference in New York, Panamanian Rabbi Gabriel Benayon took time to shop in Manhattan where he purchased a new pair of sneakers.
Returning to the conference, the rabbi noticed an ill-clad fellow enter his subway car, shoeless. Benayon thought to himself, “Why do I have two pairs of shoes and he has none?”
He might have concluded, “I need a second pair of shoes,” and left it at that. Instead, he chose to see that they were needed by someone else even more. So he gave the shoes he was wearing to his fellow passenger and then put on his own new sneakers.
“We always have to be alert,” he explained. “We always have to try to think what good can we do towards another.”
Behavior that benefits another individual at some risk or cost to oneself is known as altruism. It’s variously explained by psychologists as an evolutionary trait that enhances species survival, an involuntary Pavlovian response to the “feel good” brain hormones triggered by giving, or a learned behavior rewarded by increased feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.
Jewish psychologist Abraham Maslow reframed these explanations as a hierarchy of innate human needs, expanded to include meaning, personal growth and, at the apex, transcendence: being motivated by values that reach beyond the personal self.
Each of these explanations implies that, in the words of Rabbi Warren Goldstein, “God has hard-wired self-interest deep into the human psyche.”
Two thousand years earlier, the Talmudic sage Hillel implied the same: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
But just as Hillel continued, “If I am only for myself, what am I?,” Maslow recognized that human beings also have an absolute need for something bigger and higher than themselves: the transcendent or the sacred.
Altruism would seem to qualify as a transcendent value, yet altruism has no equivalent word in ancient or modern Hebrew, rabbinic scholar Rabbi Emil Hirsch notes.
The closest terms are nedivut, generosity or openhandedness, and ahavat hazulat, implying love of one’s fellow human being, neither of which encompasses the idea of reciprocity or cost to oneself.
The Hebrew calls to mind God’s acts of pure goodness and kindness, a selfless giving that exemplifies holiness, a quality the Torah calls on us to emulate in order to be holy ourselves.
The human challenge of selfless giving, however, is that we are hard-wired for self-interest.
The great Lithuanian sage Rabbi Shimon Shkop offers a most intriguing response to that challenge. “If the self is getting in the way of helping others, then we need to expand our definition of the self to encompass others — family, community, the Jewish people, the world.”
Goldstein adds, “The more we reach out to others, the greater we become. This is why, when a child is born, we pray: ‘May this katan’ — this small one, ‘become gadol’ — become big. We pray for this infant, so naturally preoccupied with meeting its immediate physical needs…to become someone who sees the people around him, really sees them, and has an expansive perspective of the world and an expansive definition of self.”
“You have freedom of choice, and the choice you need to make is a very simple one,” advises YouTube’s most popular rabbi, the Chasidic social philosopher Manis Friedman. “You can be needy or you can be needed. That’s it. That’s what (the purpose of life) boils down to. You can focus on your needs, try to satisfy your needs, pursue your needs, do it your way — whatever that means, and you’re gonna get depressed. Or you can focus on who needs you.”
Giving. “I remember the early years of Israel,” muses Devorah, “when every egg and every piece of fruit was a treasure, and they didn’t stretch far in a family of 12. At the end of the street lived Mrs. Arzi. She wasn’t rich, but she saw things that needed to be seen. She would often give me a banana from her shopping basket as naturally as if I were her own child. I learned from her that you don’t have to be wealthy or live in prosperous times in order to give.”
Doing. It’s the little things that make all the difference when flying from London to Los Angeles with a toddler, Barbara recalls. “Like the man who lifted my carry-on into the overhead. And the couple seated next to me who moved to the next row, saying kindly, ‘We thought you’d enjoy the extra room.’ And the woman who spontaneously packed up my things as we readied to land, allowing my baby to continue sleeping on my shoulder. They made the trip so much easier, and I’m so grateful.”
Fixing. “I was creeping along Chicago’s I-55 in a snowstorm when my car skidded, eventually coming to an abrupt halt, horizontally across three lanes of the highway,” Ethan remembers. “Heart pounding, I surveyed my limited options. A nearby driver stopped, stepped out into the middle of the highway, and waved both arms yelling, ‘Stop!’ Traffic came to a halt while he called out directions, guiding me back into one of the lanes. ‘You’re good,’ he shouted, thumbs-up, as he jumped back into his car and took off.”
How many times do we zoom by others, too busy with the rush of life to pay attention to another’s need?
Each person has something to offer, a talent or gift that can help another. “We exist because we are needed,” Manis Friedman concludes. “That’s who we are. We are necessary.”
Literature to share
Gitty and Kvetch by Caroline Kusin Pritchard. It started out as a perfect day when the upbeat and adventurous Gitty and her cranky feathered friend, Kvetch, set out on an adventure. But when Gitty’s perfect plan turns upside down, the importance of friendship and seeing things in new ways come into play. Complemented by lively, colorful images and hilarious dialogue sprinkled with Yiddish, this tale for primary ages also holds great adult appeal.
Coco at the Ritz by Gioia Diliberto. Unknown to most, Coco Chanel, the couturier and founder of the Chanel brand, had dark connections with the Nazi party that made her very rich. Her paramour was a Nazi officer, but did she willingly agree to become a Nazi spy? She was an avowed antisemite, but did she ascribe to Nazi ideology? Did she seek personal profit or was she just trying to survive? Based on well-researched history, this novel raises the challenge of how each of us stands up to evil within our sight.