Egotism… The Good and The Bad

How great is the love that ameilus baTorah brings to those who learn it. And how great are the middos inculcated in those who are engrossed in it. The Kalisher Rov and Imrei Binah, Rav Meir Auerbach, in his later years, immigrated to Eretz Yisroel and became one of its gedolim. In Yerushalayim, he learned with his grandson, Menachem, who would grow into a great talmid chochom in his own right and become one of Yerushalayim’s most important askanim.

Once, while learning with his grandson, Rav Meir paused and said to him, “If anyone ever complains to you that your zaide forgot an open Mishnah Lamelech in one of his pieces of Torah, tell him that your zaide was perfectly aware of what he says. I purposely did not mention his opinion, because he obviously overlooked an open Tosafos, so I recorded my chiddush and quoted the Tosafos without the Mishnah Lamelech.

Years passed and a grandson, Rav Menachem Auerbach, became one of Yerushalayim’s foremost askanim. The yishuv was going through a very difficult time, as parnassah was scarce, and the gedolei Yerushalayim decided to send him to America to appeal to Yidden there for donations. He arrived in one of the Jewish communities on these shores and was welcomed most graciously. He was told, however, that he came at a most inopportune time, because the renowned Ridvaz, Rav Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky, had arrived from Eretz Yisroel to collect money for the Jewish community of Tzefas, where the financial situation was also tough. It would be impossible to succeed with two campaigns for funds at the same time. They suggested that he go to a different city and return in two weeks, when they would be happy to accommodate him.

That night, Rav Menachem stayed at a hotel in town, woke up early in the morning, and walked out to one of the lobbies. Lo and behold, whom did he see there? It was theRidvaz, pacing back and forth, reviewing Gemara by heart. His face was aflame as he recited one blatt after another. With great trepidation, Rav Menachem approached the gadol and said, “Shalom aleichem.”

“Who are you?” asked the Ridvaz.

“My name is Menachem Auerbach from Yerushalayim,” he answered.

“Are you related to the Imrei Binah?”

“He is my zaide.”

“You know, he forgot a Mishnah Lamelech.”

Rav Menachem wasn’t fazed. He was prepared for this moment.

“My zaide was well aware of that Mishnah Lamelech. It’s just that the Mishnah Lamelech overlooked an open Tosafos.”

When the Ridvaz heard this, his face expressed great wonder. He started once again pacing the floor hurriedly. “Ah befeirishe Tosafos Ah befeirishe Tosafos…,” he exclaimed. “Which Tosafos?” He was reviewing all of the Tosafos in Shas, but couldn’t come up with it.

“It’s a Tosafos in Seder Nezikin,” said Rav Menachem, without saying which masechta.

That’s all he had to say. The Ridvaz stopped and exclaimed, “Oy vey! Oy vey!” It’s Tosafos in Bava Kamma daf tzadi hey.” Immediately, he ran over to Rav Menachem and gave him a warm kiss on the forehead, displaying such a fiery love for Torah.

“Tell me,” said the Ridvaz, “what are you doing here in America? Aren’t you from Yerushalayim?”

“I came here to collect money for the community of Yerushalayim,” he answered.

“Listen, I’m also here to collect money. But if you are an ainikel of the Imrei Binah, who caught the Mishnah Lamelech missing a Tosafos, then I will defer to you. I am hereby stopping my collection and I will help you collect funds for the next two weeks.”

The tzaddik did as he said, and for the next two weeks he dedicated his time to help Rav Menachem on his mission (Lesichta Elyon, Vayikra, Page 333).

We must note that at the time of this story, the Ridvaz was not a youngster. His time and kochos were most precious to him. He was on a mission of his own and was undoubtedly interested in getting back home as soon as possible. Yet, he was willing to forego his own interests, yielding to someone who was considerably younger than him, because of kavod haTorah for his venerable grandfather. What great love for Torah and what astounding middos! The Torah trains a person when to utilize his inner drive for accomplishment and when to subjugate his own interests for the needs of others.

It’s the shortest word in the dictionary and yet perhaps the most complicated. It is the word “I.” “I” contains egotism, an inner feeling present in every individual. Subconsciously, man thinks that he is more important than anyone. Because of this selfishness, he constantly strives to satisfy his own desires and needs. And when he finally attains them, instead of feeling satisfied, his passions expand. If he does not consciously work at taming these urges, he is prone to attaining what he wants even at the expense of others. So self-absorbed can one become in his own gratification, momentary gain, or receiving honor that he won’t care that in the process he is causing others financial loss or embarrassment.

This view of self-importance also clouds his recognition of the Creator, because it is difficult to subjugate his own desires to the Will of Hashem. He sees himself and his aspirations as an entity unto itself, separated from Hashem, and that is literally an avodah zarah in the heart of man. These innate desires that stem from his egotism are the most powerful senses that function beneath the threshold of his consciousness, and they are capable of compromising man’s love and caring for his close friends and relatives. Even if he is filled with affection towards them, it is not as deep as the love that he has for himself.

When Chava ate from the Eitz Hadaas, she was quick to share it with her husband, Adam Harishon. Why? Rashi explains that it is so that she shouldn’t die alone, allowing her husband to survive and marry someone else. As close as Adam was to her heart, it was only an external love compared to her own interests. This selfishness is liable to motivate man to commit the worst of crimes imaginable, as we have seen throughout history. It started with Kayin killing his own brother, Hevel, out of pure jealousy. Most of the wars and untold bloodshed throughout the ages were brought about because of this selfishness.

One must ask, then, if this powerful force of self-regard can lead to such negative results, why did Hashem create us with it in the first place? One can only conclude that this mighty sensation has been implanted in us to accomplish great things. On a simple level, Hashem wanted us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” to build families, homes and cities, to be innovative and productive. We need this egotism to overcome all obstacles that stand in our way. On a higher level, it was meant for our success in avodas Hashem. To reach high levels of spirituality, one must often clear many hurdles. Without the energy generated by the need for self-accomplishment, this would be impossible.

What gave Rav Akiva Eiger the impetus to plumb the Torah to its greatest depths? The subconscious power of “I.” What gave Rav Aharon Kotler and other gedolim the emotional stamina to plant Torah here in America, where their ideas were so alien to its culture? The power of “I.” And what gives the movers and shakers of our communities the ability to create all sorts of chesed organizations so vital for all of us? It is the power of “I.” As great and as paramount as this inner drive is for our success, it has a negative side that can be so destructive. How do we tread this fine line, utilizing it and at the same time not having to suffer from its adverse effects? The Kotzker says that one is required to walk in this world with two pockets. In one, he carries the idea of “beshvili nivra ha’olam, for my sake the world was created.” In the other, he must carry the message of “v’anochi afar v’eifer, I am but dust and ash.”

But how does one manage to perform this balancing act between the two extremes? For this, we have the Torah to guide us. It contains the all-encompassing mitzvah of “ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha, love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). We must learn from our self-interests what our friends’ needs are. To think how happy I would be if someone were to supply me with my necessities. And then to act in such a manner to our friends, treating them as we ourselves would like to be treated. To realize what bothers us, what our sensitivities are, and to be extra careful then not to hurt our friends’ feelings and to treat them with the respect we would like for ourselves. To wish upon our friends that which we wish for ourselves.

Through this, we can bring unity instead of strife and elevate ourselves and our surroundings. It takes a concentrated effort of thoughts and deeds, along with tefillah, to accomplish this. Fortunate is the person who lives his life this way (based on Michtav M’Eliyahu, volume 4, page 32).

Can you imagine the egotism that drove Avrohom Avinu? On his own, by studying the briah, he recognized that there is a “Master to this building.” He opposed the ideas of his very own family and defied the much-feared king Nimrod, willingly going into the furnace for the sake of Hashem. He left his birthplace and his family for an unknown place. He singlehandedly fought against the armies of the superpowers of the world at that time, and he was victorious. And with his great energy, he brought multitudes of people under the wings of Hashem. Yet, this very same tzaddik, with the gigantic “I,” said about himself, “I am but dust and ash.”

It is no coincidence that it is Avrohom Avinu who represents the pillar of chesed in the world, for as much as Avrohom utilized “beshvili nivra ha’olam,” he countered that with the other extreme of “ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha.” No wonder Chazal say that Avrohom was the purpose of the creation of the world. If we follow in the way of our forebear, we, too, can wear that badge of being considered the tachlis of the briah. We, too, can bring harmony to our lives and unity to our surroundings, and be a living embodiment of kiddush Sheim Shomayim.