Yonatan Udren

Finding Freedom from Self-Help

When did we become so self-obsessed?

This is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ question in his work Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. He laments the overemphasis on the “I” at the cost of the “We” that is rampant today in Western culture, and argues that not only will it not only lead to the breakdown of societies, but to people feeling alienated and alone.

In this light, he discusses Marianne Powers’ book, “Help Me,” a criticism of the self-help movement:

“… the author describes how, at a bad point in her life, she made the decision to set aside a significant amount of time—in the end it turned out to be fifteen months—to live according to a whole series of self-help classics, a month at a time. She read them all and lived out what they told her to do. Some of it was amusing, while some was quite scary. At the end, she tells us the result of fifteen months of self-help. Her debts had grown. Her productivity had plummeted. She was fourteen pounds heavier than when she began. ‘I became irresponsible, selfish and deluded, watching inspirational videos on YouTube instead of doing actual work and spending money I didn’t have on the basis that the universe would provide. Worst of all, I fell out with one of my best friends.’”

A similar critique of self-indulgence can be found at the very beginning of the Pesach Seder. There the text opens with an invitation: “Anyone who is famished should come and eat, anyone who is in need should come and partake of the Pesach sacrifice.”

Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon points out in his Haggadah that today this invitation seemingly holds little to no meaning. This is not an announcement we make in the town square; anyone who is joining us for Seder is already sitting at the table, and anyone who still needs a place is not going to hear the invitation in any case!

Quoting from the Haggadah of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Rimon shares that today the invitation is not for others, but rather for those of us sitting at the table. Why? Because it teaches us the true nature of freedom. A slave cannot think about anyone else; they are totally self-absorbed and can only focus on one question: when will I be free? But the free person can step out of their own needs and ask a very different question: what can I do for others?

Therefore, the definition of a free person is one who can step out of his or her own head and consider the needs of others.

So does the self-help movement lead one down the path to personal slavery? According to Marianne Powers, it can. If the “I” becomes the totality of one’s focus, then one becomes self-obsessed. But if we find balance between focus on the self and others, then we can walk the golden path. “If I am not for me, then who will be?” asked Hillel. But he continues, “But if I am only for myself, then what am I?

As we gather around the Seder Table, and we invite all those who are hungry, we may not actually be inviting others; but we are still making a profound statement, one which frames the entire Pesach holiday, called the Holiday of Freedom. We are declaring that the essence of freedom is care and consideration for others. Though we are telling a story which starts with slavery and ends in freedom, on a deeper level we are telling a story which moves from complete self-absorption to loving self-sacrifice.

The Haggadah reads, “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they left Egypt.” But how can we know if we have truly been redeemed, or if we’re still living in a slave’s mentality? Rabbi Rimon offers us a powerful and simple litmus test: ask yourself if you are more focused on yourself, or on others.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash, which offers a Jewish home away from home for English-speaking olim and overseas students in Jerusalem.
Related Topics
Related Posts