Benjamin left his office building in Manhattan to get lunch, walking straight into the beggar standing beside the door. The beggar looked decrepit and ungroomed. Everyone on the sidewalk eyed him with contempt. Something stirred in Benjamin, though, and he was filled with compassion.
“Sir, are you all right?” he asked.
The beggar rolled his eyes and said, “Just leave me alone.”
Benjamin stayed where he was and continued speaking calmly to the man. “Are you hungry?”
“No, I’ve just come from dining with the president,” the beggar replied sarcastically. “Now leave me alone.”
Benjamin’s smile remained intact as he gently helped the beggar up instead. “Come, let’s get out of the cold and get a bite to eat.”
Benjamin led the man into a small café. He bought a few rolls and some coffee, and gently handed them over to the older man.
“Jack, you still don’t recognize me?” Benjamin asked.
Jack examined his face. “Well…you do look familiar.” he said slowly.
“Do you remember a cold and hungry boy who frequently visited this place when you used to work here?” Benjamin asked. “Perhaps he’s grown old, hasn’t he?
“I had just graduated, and I came to the city looking for a job. It took me a while to find one, and eventually I ran out of cash. I lost my apartment, and I had to move out onto the streets of the city in the middle of February. I walked into this store, hoping to find something I could afford with the few coins in my pocket.”
Jack’s face lit up, and he began to smile. “Now I remember you. I used to work at the counter.”
“I know,” Benjamin said. “You offered me the biggest roast beef sandwich, something to drink, and a table for me to sit at and enjoy the meal. I saw you put the price of my food in the cash register. You paid for my meal.”
“So, you started your own business?” Jack asked.
“No, not exactly. That very afternoon I got a job. I worked my way up. Then, I started my own business.” He opened his wallet and pulled out a business card. “Please pay a visit to the personnel director of my company. I’ll go talk to him now. I am sure there is something in my office that we can use your help with. We can even pay you some of your salary in advance.”
Fighting back tears, Jack asked, “How can I ever repay your kindness?”
“You don’t have to,” Benjamin answered. “You already did.”
The Desire to Contribute
Everyone wants to contribute something significant to the world, to play a meaningful part in the cosmic symphony we call life. This desire is an inherent part of being human. We yearn to expand beyond our limited sphere of existence and to become a part of something meaningful, something infinitely greater than ourselves. Although often channeled through ego and the desire for fame, this yearning stems from a deep, spiritual place. We possess a deep, inner knowledge that, at root, we are part of something infinitely greater than ourselves. Each of us is a unique and irreplaceable piece in a collective whole that transcends the sum of its parts. The question in life is not whether we wish to accomplish something significant with our gift of life, the question is how. How can I become more self-aware, more disciplined, more caring, and more successful?
When describing the avodah (Divine service) that Aharon HaKohen performed on Yom Kippur, the Torah states that Aharon is commanded to first bring a korban (sacrifice) to atone for his own sins, and then bring the korban to atone for the sins of the entire Jewish People. The order of these sacrifices is peculiar, appearing antithetical to Aharon’s role as the spiritual leader of the Jewish People. A leader is called upon to be selfless, unceasingly devoted to his or her people, putting the Jewish People’s needs before his own. Why then does Aharon take care of his own atonement before turning his attention to the people? What is the deep meaning and lesson behind this?
Chayecha Kodmin vs. V’ahavta L’rei’acha Kamocha
This same issue lies at the core of a discussion that takes place in the Gemara (Bava M’tzia 62a). Chazal discuss the case of two men stranded in a desert with a single flask of water between them, belonging to one of the two men. If the owner of the flask drinks the water, he can survive long enough to make it safely back to civilization. If the men split the water, they will both die. The initial opinion, as quoted in the Gemara, is that the owner of the flask must share his water. This opinion stood until Rabbi Akiva came along and contested it, arguing that “chayecha kodmin – your life comes first”; therefore, the owner of the water must save his own life at the expense of his friend’s.
Although this statement of Rabbi Akiva seems logically justifiable, it is shocking in that it seems to completely contradict another well-known statement made by Rabbi Akiva. One of Rabbi Akiva’s most famous statements and principles is, “‘V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,’ zeh klal gadol baTorah – ‘Love your friend as you love yourself,’ this is a foundational principle in the Torah” (Toras Kohanim 19:45; Rashi, Vayikra 19:18). If this statement is true, and if it represents Rabbi Akiva’s view, then how can he say chayecha kodmin – that you should prioritize your own life? Is this not a contradiction to loving your friend as yourself?
The Two-Step Process
In order to understand Rabbi Akiva’s seemingly contradictory statements, as well as the puzzling order of Aharon’s korbanos, we must study the concept of giving in greater depth. The fundamental prerequisite for giving is that we must first have that which we want to give. In order to contribute to this world, we must first build something worth contributing. In order to truly love another, we must first love ourselves. The first step of life is building internally, developing our own skills and gifts. This means building our mind and inner world, developing our beliefs, our convictions, and our understanding of Hashem and His Torah. Simultaneously, we must develop our midos and personality, work on our self-discipline, and craft the ideal lifestyle to maximize our potential in this world. Only then is it possible to expand outwards and contribute to klal Yisrael and the world as a whole.
When Giving Isn’t Giving
Many people have an incredible desire to give but have nothing to actually contribute. It’s wonderful to dream of giving one million dollars to tz’dakah (charity). But if we have no money, that desire will not have much effect. It’s admirable to want to be a role model and a teacher, but if we possess no knowledge, nor character traits to be emulated, what good is that desire? Of course, the desire itself is praiseworthy, and may someday lead to something extraordinary, but at present it has no effect. (The goal of this idea is by no means to diminish the importance and validity of noble desires. The point being made is that, for practical purposes, desire is not always enough.)
The same goes for marriage. Marriage can only be as great as each individual spouse is. The beauty of marriage is the result of what each spouse invests and contributes into the relationship. In an ideal marriage, each spouse expands outwards by giving oneself fully into the relationship. But if neither spouse has anything to give, what kind of marriage will it be?
Chayecha Kodmin As a Prerequisite
This understanding of giving sheds light on Rabbi Akiva’s seemingly contradictory statements. Chayecha kodmin isn’t a contradiction to V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha; it’s a prerequisite for its ideal fulfillment. Only if we first invest in ourselves can we then expand outwards and give to others. Only once we embrace our true “self” and discover our potential can we truly fall in love with ourselves. It is only after we love ourselves that we can then expand outwards and love someone else. Chayecha kodmin is the first step toward fulfilling V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha. Thus, investing in ourselves is the most selfless form of selfishness, as it becomes the very foundation and prerequisite for giving.
Aharon’s Role As the Leader
We can now explain the meaning behind Aharon’s avodah. A leader must be the ultimate example of working from the inside out – first developing himself internally and only then expanding outwards. Before Aharon could begin serving klal Yisrael, he had to first work on his own personal connection with Hashem. Only after bringing a korban for his own personal atonement was Aharon then able to expand outwards, helping all of klal Yisrael build their connection with Hashem.
An Ageless Principle
When we think about focusing inward, investing in ourselves and our growth, we generally think of those in their teens and early 20s who are still in school or at the beginning of their careers, focused on learning and investing in themselves as much as possible. However, when properly understood, investment is imperative at every age. In order to give, we must first invest in ourselves, creating something powerful within, which we then express outwards. Therefore, at all stages in life, we must balance these two principles: investing and contributing. Sometimes we may spend more time and energy on investment, and sometimes we may focus more on contribution, but they must always remain partners in our approach to life. It’s never too late to grow, and it’s never too early to contribute. The valuable skill is knowing how to create the ideal balance between these two, and knowing when to shift the balance one way or the other.
May we be inspired to endlessly invest in ourselves while realizing that everything I invest into me can ultimately be contributed into we.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.