Self-Interest & Altruisim

What is the Pottery Barn catalogue of your spirit? Maybe it’s just the Pottery Barn catalogue. But if there were an aesthetic to look at, or pages to flip through, that would help you to feel that your spirit has enjoyed the equivalent of laundry washed & folded, candles lit in antique holders, kilim rugs freshly vacuumed, velvet pillows fluffed – what would it be?
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I ask because that’s what God was evidently thinking in this week’s parsha – and because I’m starting to think that the answer to that question might be very important in regards to civicization as well.

Last week  I wanted to write a dvar torah, but I didn’t. I was so flustered with packing for a weekend out of town, and an email conversation with Alex HIllman from Indy Hall, that I didn’t have time to read the parsha for the week, or sit down at the computer for more than five minutes at a time.

However, I had something in mind that I wanted to write about – a meeting with an orthodox rabbi at an event for Young Friends groups where we were hosting neighboring tables. I had an idea in mind, but never started to write it – so I was surprised to see the main idea of it in one of Alex’s responses (his replies are bold).

So – who is your mentor?

That’s one of the few things that I keep close to my chest, partially because some of my mentors don’t know that they are my mentors and I prefer it that way.
I’m distilling your sagacity into threes to put in my pocket & take with me. Any additions?
1.) Daydream big, then break it down into manageable pieces that give you good chills, not vertigo.
2.) When folks say “no,” it’s an opinion, not a mandate. When folks say “yes,” it’s not a commitment until they act on it.
3.) Just because you’re not “qualified” doesn’t mean you can’t do it; you won’t be qualified until you do it, and you won’t grow until you move outside of your zone (of pd).
Beautifully distilled. I’m hoping to grab some bits from this for my blog, with your permission.
Thank you, Alex! This is really helping me to reframe what I’m thinking about doing. Truly. Thank you.

Go forth and JFDI. 🙂

I clicked on that article, and was totally blown away. It was exactly what I had wanted to write about! And so, my reply:

WOW – I was actually planning to write my dvar torah blog post today about exactly that, anonymity and giving! Coincidences are quite amazing. One of my favorite concepts in Judaism is the one first cited in that article. Last week I had a fascinating debate with the young rabbi who started the Kugel Collaborative over on South St. about what true anonymous charity would be. He laid out three situations: One, a man throws money into a crowd; they know who is giving, he doesn’t know who is getting. Two, a man drops off a bag of money at a neighbor’s doorstep in the night; he knows who’s getting, but the giver is unknown. Three, he gives to a charity anonymously – he doesn’t know the exact recipient, and they dont’ know the donor. The rabbi said this was the most meaningful.

I disagreed. I said that the true anonymous giving would be to put goodness, intention, and effort out into the universe, unsure as to whether anyone would receive it, but with the trust that if you put it out there, it will eventually be absorbed by somebody. You don’t know if your work and your efforts will be taken up – and that’s hard to come to terms with, when you take pride in what you do. And if they are received, you’ll never know – which is also hard. But which I think makes it the most meaningful.
I suppose the same can absolutely be said for mentoring, as well. So I completely understand your holding that close and keeping it private.
So; hmmm. I’m going to have to mull over your last email. Once I’ve applied some paleontology to my ideas and carbon dated the dreams that lie within them, you’ll be the first to hear it. I love your questions, and I most love that I don’t have the answers. 🙂
I feel like JFDI is the wise man’s YOLO. I may need it on a t-shirt, or a neck/knuckle tattoo.
I finished packing, feeling a little vertiginous after this exchange, and thought about it all weekend. What was there to learn here from this idea of anonymity? How could it connect to doing good in the world?
On Tuesday night at a meeting at my temple, Rabbi Eli – the 30-something, scruffy vunderkind who  is like your sweet, pothead, Jack Johnson-covering boyfriend’s roommate at Oberlin – gave his own Dvar Torah to open the meeting.
“You know, one of my favorite lines from this week’s parsha is: ‘peak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering.’ I love that part,” he started, smiling.
“Those whose heart inspires him to generosity’ – now, I used to think that meant, anyone who is good and kind, and doing the right thing. But it doesn’t say that. It’s he whose heart inspires him to generosity – there is a willingness there, a desire to be generous. And it got me thinking about self-interest and altruism – that when we do good things, there can be self-interest there; and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
I got a chill.
“Yes, we might be fighting to make a neighborhood safer because we want to help others who are suffering – but we also want better schools for our children, safer streets for our own walks home. When we act generously for others, it is fine, and good, for us also to be the beneficiaries, and for our own self-interest to be what motivates our generosity; they are not mutually exclusive, self-interest and altruism. I think this is an important thing to think about as we start this meeting, thinking about our reasons for being a part of P.O.W.E.R., and being honest about our motivations to do this work.”
I smiled the whole time, listening, because not only did it remind me of my confusing but wonderful exchange with Alex, but I had just written an uncomfortable post about my own needs & values, which made me reconsider the source of my desire to do community work – perhaps it came from a less generous place than I had thought it did, and this idea scared me a little. Hearing Rabbi Eli explicate this idea was soothing.
The rest of this week’s parsha at first struck me as dull. It is a painstakingly detailed account of the ark that God asks Moses to build so that they can conference atop the mountain. God instruct the numbers of silver sockets to hold the curtains; some curtains are woven of crimson, purple, and indigo wool; others are crafted of dried rams skins; others are printed with cherubim; acacia wood tables are crafted, laden with hand-sculpted golden spoons; menorahs are made, as are bowls to catch the dust and ash of candles. Doorways, curtains, courtyards, tents, tables, curtain rods, silverware – everything is described from its thread to its button to its finish, as what essentially amounts to a home for Moses and God to share for awhile is built on top of the mountain. the thing that caught my attention in reading page after page of these descriptions was the importance God is placing on his nesting. Everything in this “house” must be just so.
I took a moment to think, and attempt to put my experiences of last week and the content of this week’s parsha together – and somehow, this seems to make sense to me in light of the first idea explored. It’s like the oxygen mask metaphor – you have to put on your own mask before you can save someone else; if you run out of air, you’re no good to anyone. If your own “house” is unsettled, unhappy, not how you want it, then you won’t be ready to do the good work you’ve set before yourself. Now, spending all your time choosing the curtain rings or the rug threads might feel excessive – but those things are, in some ways, just as important. God and Moses would never have had their conversations on the mountaintop if the house had not been prepared just so; what other good work is left undone because your “house” – whether it’s really the place you live, your physical state, the architecture of your life, or just the details of your self-interest – is neglected? What “nesting” could you do to feel more at home in your space, body, or life, and what would this allow yo uto do that you have heretofore been unable to try or accomplish?
Have a great weekend, enjoy the longer days, and good shabbos!
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