Shaarei Yosher, sec. 3: Self-Interest – part 1

HOWEVER, what of a person who decides to submerge his nature, to reach a high level so that he has no thought or inclination in his soul for his own good, only a desire for the good of others? In this way he would have his desire reach the sanctity of the Creator, as His Desire in all of the creation and management of the world is only for the good of the created, and not for Himself at all. At first glance one might say that if a person reached this level, he would reach the epitome of being whole. But this is why our Sages of blessed memory teach us in this Midrash that it is not so. We cannot try to be similar to His Holiness in this respect.
אמנם אם יאמר האדם להכניע את טבעו להגיע למדה יתירה עד שלא יהיה בנפשו שום מחשבה ושאיפה להיטיב לעצמו, וכל שאיפותיו יהיו רק להיטיב לאחרים, ובאופן כזה תהיה שאיפתו להגיע לקדושת הבורא ית׳, שרצונו ית׳ בכל הבריאה והנהגת העולם רק להיטיב לנבראים ולא לעצמו ית׳ כלל וכלל, שבהשקפה ראשונה היה אפשר לומר שאם יגיע אדם למדרגה זו יגיע לתכלית השלמות, ולכן הורו לנו חז״ל במדרש זה שלא כן הוא, שאין לנו להשתדל להדמות לקדושת הבורא ית׳ בצד זה,

In Chassidus, there is a central theme called bitul hayeish, abnegation of [one’s own] existence. For a Lubavitch example, from the chapter titled “Bittul” in R’ Jacob Immanuel Schochet’s “The Mystical Tradition:

Yeshut, selfhood or self-assertion, is the very antithesis of the principle of yichud. It is a denial of ultimate reality vested exclusively in G-d who “fills the heaven and the earth (Jeremiah 23:24); there is no place devoid of His presence; there is none beside Him.

That is why pride and anger, arrogance and losing one’s temper, as well as not caring about others, and so forth, are tantamount to idolatry. For in all these cases man is concerned with himself, he assumes a reality for his ego. In all these cases man has become self-centered as opposed to G-d-centered, worshipping his ego instead of G-d alone. He may recognize the existence of G-d, even the supremacy of G-d, but also grants recognition to himself.

Of this self-centered person G-d says, “I and he cannot dwell together.” That person is so full of himself that in him there remains no place for G-d. Of this the Baal Shem Tov taught: Self-aggrandizement is worse than sin. For of all defilements and sins it is written, “Who dwells with them in the very midst of their impurity” (Leviticus 16:16); of the arrogant, however, it is said, “and he cannot both dwell in this world,’ as it is written, ‘I cannot tolerate him who has haughtiness and a proud heart’ (Psalms 101:5).”

Bitul Hayesh thus means total self-negation. The ego, all and any forms of selfhood, must be nullified. It has no place in the consciousness of Divine omnipresence…

While it plays a central role in Chabad, we also find bitul in Breslov. E.g. in Liqutei Moharan 1:52, Rav Nachman describes their central practice of hisbodedus (time alone, preferably in a natural setting, with one’s Creator and one’s thoughts) in terms of such bitul. And in “Dear Rabbi, Dear Doctor” (pg 200), Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski contrasts the roles of psychology’s notion of self-affirmation with what he describes as mussar‘s recommendation of bitul, defined as self-effacement. R’ Dr Twerski is clearly speaking about the lower-case-m mussar, the self-work, involved in his own mesorah of Chassidus than the capital-M Mussar, the thought of the movement launched by Rav Yisrael Salanter. In Chassidus, bitul hayeish means getting one’s Selfhood out of the way and thereby becoming a conduit for Hashem.

Rav Shimon here explicitly denies this approach. He takes the medrash‘s words “קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם’ — My Sanctity is higher than yours” to show that while Hashem has no needs, we do. Hashem doesn’t engage in separation (perishus), because He has nothing to separate from. Our holiness is thus preforce different than His. One is in the “image” of G-d by being a committed to Hashem’s goal of bestowing good to others, but as an active partner, not a passive conduit. Selfhood isn’t to be eliminated of minimized. This position comes from the same general stream of Jewish Thought as the Alter of Slabodka’s, who founded a school of Mussar on the notion of Gadlus haAdam — the greatness of man, both in terms of myself, and in how I perceive the people I interact with.

As we shall see, this introduction will take us to lovingkindness by building on, rather than negating, selfhood.

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  1. Bob Miller says:

    Clearly we do possess a level of gadlus, but relative to HaShem what is this gadlus? Maybe our attitude toward our own gadlus has to depend on whom we are interacting with at a given time and for what purpose.

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