The Quest to Overcome Self-Interest Bias

Enlightened self-interest is a healthy instinct. As the great Sage Hillel taught[i]: if I am not for myself, then who is for me; but if I am only for my own self, then what am I; and if not now, when?

This ethic is one of the engines powering the free-market and social welfare system in the U.S. that has made it an indisputable historical success. Never have so many lived so well[ii]. However, what if self-interest is unenlightened and unchecked? As my father, of blessed memory, would say in Yiddish, ‘alles fur einem is nisht du for keinem’; loosely translated, if everything is for one then there is nothing left for anyone else.

Self-interest is also the basis for an innate and extremely negative bias that colors how we see and interact with the world around us. It is often imperceptible; masked by a cognitive dissonance that misperceives the objective reality of the needs of others. The bias can also enable inherently selfish instinctual behavior to be reflexively and self-deceptively rationalized[iii], justified and even mischaracterized as somehow being selfless and virtuous. How then to overcome this intrinsic bias of self-interest in order to assess circumstances objectively, make sound decisions and act properly?

The Bible[iv] presents an intricate tale involving self-interest bias and alluding to a means for remedying the condition. It begins with Abraham sending Eliezer, as his emissary, on a mission. Eliezer is ostensibly charged with going back to the patrimonial land of Abraham’s birth in an effort to find a bride for Isaac; at least that is the way Eliezer initially understood it.

It is suggested that Eliezer did not, at first, fully appreciate the mission or understand exactly what Abraham meant. Abraham had recently learned of the birth of Rebecca[v], a granddaughter of his brother Nachor. It was Rebecca, who Abraham intended Eliezer find and try to convince to leave her ancestral home, relocate to Israel and marry Isaac[vi].

However, it appears that Eliezer didn’t hear it that way. As Rashi notes[vii], Eliezer was looking for a pretext that would enable his own daughter to marry Isaac. Consider, Eliezer was also born in Abraham’s ancestral homeland and, in addition, was of royal lineage, as the progeny of Nimrod the king[viii]. Why, he reasoned shouldn’t his own daughter be a suitable match for Isaac? The Midrash[ix] is more caustic in its analysis of Eliezer’s frame of mind. It describes how he was highly prejudiced in favor of his own daughter[x] and willing even to overreach to accomplish this result.

Eliezer’s self-interest bias[xi] was profound and it threatened to undermine the success of the mission he undertook, at the behest of Abraham. It insidiously interfered with his perception of Abraham’s instructions. Furthermore, in his discussions with Abraham, he didn’t focus on how to succeed. Rather, he was only concerned about what would happen if his mission proved unsuccessful[xii]. He was, in effect, rationalizing favoring his own daughter.

It is noteworthy that the Bible devotes what appears to be an inordinate amount of otherwise very precious space[xiii] to retelling virtually the same story multiple times, albeit with some subtle differences. It is humbly suggested that the extended treatment of the subject is needed in order to explore the various phases of Eliezer’s evolution from a wise and accomplished individual[xiv], burdened with an unacknowledged and not atypical self-interest bias, into a truly saintly one[xv]. The process is not easy; but through it, he succeeded in overcoming his innate bias and managed to achieve extraordinary results. Indeed, it might be said that by convincing himself of the wisdom and nobility of the cause, despite it being contrary to his perception of his own personal interests, he was able to convince others, as well.

The first phase of Eliezer’s enlightenment began with a change of locale and perspective. He traveled to Aram Naharaim and the City of Nachor, where Abraham’s family and, most importantly, Rebecca resided[xvi]. There he began the next phase of his personal development and transformation, by praying to G-d and seeking divine guidance and crying out for help[xvii]. He conceived of an objective test that would convince anyone, including himself, that the proposed match was the genuinely correct one for Isaac. Amazingly, almost before he completed his prayer, Rebecca suddenly appeared on the scene. She immediately set about gracefully and seemingly effortlessly[xviii] satisfying the unreasonably high and rigorous standards of conduct he had established for knowing who was Mrs. Right for Isaac. Thus, she provided Eliezer with the water he requested and, then without being asked, voluntarily provided water to the many camels in his caravan. Beyond that she exceeded those unrealistic expectations by graciously providing hospitality to Eliezer, his retinue and the camels[xix]. Eliezer was so overwhelmed he did handstands and bowed to G-d in gratefulness[xx]. He later more fully recognized the outstanding nature of what occurred, after intense introspection[xxi], when he related the event to Rebecca’s family.

Eliezer was awestruck and humbled by the experience and veritably transformed. He took out some gold jewelry in preparation[xxii] for rewarding the young maiden, who was so kind and caring, with a token of appreciation. It should be noted that Rebecca had not asked for any compensation for all her efforts[xxiii]. When Eliezer asked who she was, Rebecca responded she was the daughter of Betuel and granddaughter of Milcah and Nachor[xxiv].

The reference to Milcah is an important detail. Milcah was the sister of our Matriarch Sarah[xxv]. The fact that Rebecca felt the need to mention her lineage as a descendant of Milcah and not just leave it at being the daughter of Betuel is telling[xxvi]. According to the Midrash[xxvii] he and his son Laban were notorious and unsavory characters. Rebecca, though, was a kind and saintly individual, who was genuinely out of place in her surroundings.

In this context, the Bible’s description of the jewelry takes on a wholly symbolic meaning that transcends any material value ascribed to the pieces. As the Midrash[xxviii] points out, the two bracelets represent the two stone Tablets of the Covenant[xxix] that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai[xxx] and the weight of ten shekels represents the Ten Commandments. It is suggested that Eliezer was, in effect, symbolically offering her a way out of the depraved world in which she lived. He was performing Gemillat Chesed, the ultimate kindness and good deed, by affording her an opportunity to have a new and fulfilling life of spiritual nobility and shared values with Isaac.

Eliezer was clearly moved by the experience; but his transformation was not yet complete. That required two final steps. First of all, he needed figuratively to change his name or better said his identity. He was called the man[xxxi]. However, when he met Rebecca’s family he introduced himself as Abraham’s servant[xxxii]. He also had to distance himself from the wrongful influence that was motivating him to do wrong, to wit: his self-interest bias. Thus, he did not say he was returning home if the proposed match with Rebecca did not work out. Rather, he announced that if refused, he would go left or right[xxxiii]. The Midrash[xxxiv] explains this means he would then seek a suitable mate for Isaac, either from the progeny of Ishmael or Lot. He, in effect, dispensed with his original backup plan of his daughter being the alternative match for Isaac.

Eliezer was no longer the same person who misapprehended Abraham’s wishes. He was transformed and his entire perspective had changed. When Rebecca first passed his test, he thanked G-d for not withdrawing from Abraham G-d’s graciousness, fulfilling the assurances[xxxv] made to Abraham and leading him to the family of Abraham’s brother. He was now able to think clearly and truly see objectively, unburdened by the self-interest bias that had impaired his perception. Thus, he thanked G-d for leading him in the path of truth[xxxvi]. He appreciated his mission was never about just reaching the correct destination and finding any suitable bride for Isaac there. It was always about securing a match between Rebecca and Isaac.

As a result, he becomes an eminently more effective advocate. He now genuinely understood and believed in the righteousness of the mission. Unburdened by his self-interest, he achieved an authenticity that was most persuasive. Indeed, he overcompensated by honestly and unabashedly stressing how divine providence intervened; diminishing his own role in the ensuing events. Rebecca and her family were convinced that divine providence was directing events[xxxvii]. Rebecca wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity to wed Isaac and assume her role as a Matriarch of the Jewish people[xxxviii].

Eliezer’s experience in taming his self-interest bias is similar to the one described in the Talmud[xxxix] as a method for changing a divine decree. Maimonides[xl] codifies the Talmudic program, referring to it as among the ways of accomplishing repentance[xli]. Perhaps, this is why it was so effective in the case of Eliezer. Maimonides’ transformational program includes: (1) praying to G-d and asking for help[xlii]; (2) acting justly by giving charity[xliii] in accordance with his or her means; (3) distancing oneself exceedingly from the wrongful conduct[xliv] and pursuing only the good and straight path of behavior; (4) changing of place[xlv], which leads to humbleness and a new perspective; and (5) changing of identity[xlvi], so that can honestly say not the same person who perpetrated the misdeed.

Interestingly, although Eliezer gave Rebecca valuable jewelry, it was not charity, because, as the daughter of Betuel, a wealthy and powerful leader of the community[xlvii], she didn’t need it. However, he did something even more significant and beneficial for her, the true kindness of Gemilat Chesed. He accomplished this by, in essence, freeing Rebecca from the surrounding sordid circumstances, in which she found herself. As the Talmud[xlviii] notes, Gemillat Chesed is greater than charity. It is, therefore, suggested Eliezer more than satisfied this requirement. Moreover, as the Maharal of Prague[xlix] notes, by performing Gemillat Chesed, an individual becomes a better person, who can positively influence others. In essence, this is what happened to Eliezer[l].

The Biblical quest of Eliezer to overcome his self-interest bias and find the path of truth is a most cogent lesson for our time. We are in the midst of a political maelstrom, involving claims and counterclaims of self-interest writ large, as our beloved nation experiences the corrosive effects of the impeachment inquiry. Instead of acknowledging an inherent self-interest bias, which impairs the capacity for independent and dispassionate judgment, many blithely ignore it. Some even piously protest they are only acting selflessly and virtuously, despite the obviously partisan nature of the proceedings.

Self-interest must be recognized and tamed to assure those acting in a representative capacity are not unduly prejudiced by their own personal or partisan concerns. Genuine bipartisanship, which is sorely missing in this effort, has proven most effective in compromising self-interest, to achieve the ideal of a combination of justice and equity. It would also help restore trust and confidence in the fundamental fairness and reliability of our governmental institutions. It time to come together for the good of our nation.

[i] Avot 1:14.

[ii] See ‘Where do you fit on the global income spectrum?’, by Leslie Shapiro and Heather Long, in the Washington Post, dated August 20, 2018.

[iii] See, for example, Descarte’s Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, by Dr. Antonio Damasio (1994). It discusses his work with a patient who suffered a freak accident that impaired the functionality of his amygdala. This part of the brain is viewed as the seat of our instinctual behavior, as opposed to the cortex, which is viewed as the rational portion of the brain. Dr. Damassio’s study suggests that decisions are actually made by the instinctual portion of the brain and those decisions are then rationalized by the cortex.

[iv] Genesis, Chapter 24.

[v] Genesis 22:23.

[vi] See Rashbam commentary on Genesis 24:4, as well as, Rashi commentary on Genesis 24:37. See also Targum Yonatan on the verse, which translates Moladiti (literally, land of my birth) as Beit Ginusoti (house of my family). Consider, this is actually what Eliezer did (Genesis 24:10); he traveled to where Abraham’s family resided in Aram Naharaim, the City of Nachor, not Abraham’s birthplace.

[vii] In his commentary on Genesis 24:39.

[viii] See Targum Yonatan on Genesis 14:14 and Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 16:13.

[ix] Genesis Rabbah 59:9.

[x] It compares Eliezer to a trader, who uses deceitful scales to measure the suitability of his daughter and to overreach with Isaac (based on the language of Hoshea 12:8).

[xi] See Radak and Rashi commentaries on Genesis 24:39.

[xii] Genesis 24: 5-6.

[xiii] Ibid, Radak.

[xiv] He was the chief operating officer of Abraham’s business enterprises (Genesis 24:2), an Elder in Abraham’s Yeshiva (BT Yoma 28b), a fierce and talented warrior (BT Nedarim 32a) and a world wise individual (BT Sanhedrin 109b).

[xv] Eliezer was one of the few individuals who merited entering the Garden of Eden alive (BT, Minor Tractate Derech Eretz Zuta 1:5).

[xvi] Genesis 24:10.

[xvii] Genesis 24:12.

[xviii] Genesis Rabbah 60:5.

[xix] Genesis 24:23-25.

[xx] Genesis 24:26.

[xxi] Genesis 24:45 and see Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg’s HaKtav V’HaKabbalah commentary thereon.

[xxii] See Rashbam commentary on Genesis 24:22-23, as well as, Rav Yosef ben Isaac’s 12th century Bechor Shor commentary on these verses. See also Nachmanides, Sforno, Radak and Haemek Davar commentaries on Genesis 24:22 and Ralbag on Genesis 24:23. C.F. Rashi and Malbim commentaries on Genesis 24:23.

[xxiii] See HaKtav V’HaKabbalah commentary on Genesis 24:22.

[xxiv] Genesis 24:23-24 and 47.

[xxv] Genesis 11:29 and Rashi commentary thereon, as well as, BT Megillah 14a.They were both daughters of Haran, Abraham’s brother. For a brief description of Haran, see the post entitled, The Perils of Ambivalence, by the author, at the Times of Israel, dated October 27, 2017.

[xxvi] In this regard, it is also noteworthy that she ran home to her mother to report what had occurred (Genesis 24:28).

[xxvii] See Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 34:53 and Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 110:14. See also Kli Yakar commentary on Genesis 29:5, which describes him as a despoiler, who exercised droit de seigneur. Betuel and Laban had even concocted a plan to steal Elizer’s wealth, by poisoning him at the meal they hosted for him. However, divine providence intervened to frustrate their plan. Instead of immediately consuming the poisoned soup, Eliezer began to talk at length about the miraculous events that occurred in pursuit of a match for Isaac, which lead him to Rebecca. In the meantime, Betuel ate the portion of poisoned soup originally intended for Eliezer and passed away that very night.

[xxviii] Genesis Rabbah 60.6. See also Rashi commentary on Genesis 24:2

[xxix] Referred to in Hebrew as the ‘Luchot’.

[xxx] Exodus 32:15 and Deuteronomy 9:11.

[xxxi] See, for example, Genesis 24:30.

[xxxii] Genesis 24:34.

[xxxiii] Genesis 24:49.

[xxxiv] Genesis Rabbah 60:9. See also Rashi commentary on Genesis 24:9.

[xxxv] Genesis 24:27 and see Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman commentary thereon. In essence, as interpreted by Rabbi Hoffman, G-d did not withdraw his graciousness and satisfied the commitment to Abraham. The word ‘V’Amiti’ in the verse (literally, ‘and his truth’) is, in essence, interpreted idiomatically to mean was true or faithful to the commitment to Abraham.

[xxxvi] Genesis 24:48.

[xxxvii] Genesis 24:50.

[xxxviii] Genesis 24:58-64.

[xxxix] BT Rosh Hashanah 16b. The Talmud notes that the requirement of change of place is according to some. Maimonides, though, just includes it in his recitation of the ways of repentance, as noted below.

[xl] Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:4. See also Kesef Mishna commentary thereon.

[xli] Maimonides uses the Hebrew phrase: ‘MeDarchei HaTeshuva’.

[xlii] Psalms 107:28.

[xliii] Proverbs 10:2 and, according to BT Bava Batra 10a, also Proverbs 11:4.

[xliv] Jonah 3:10. Rashi in his commentary on BT Rosh Hashanah 16b (s.v. ‘Shinui Ma’aseh’) explains this means no longer committing the wrongdoing. Ritva, in his commentary on this Talmudic text, notes that this includes even things that are not actually sinful, although still not appropriate and making the effort to change the misbehavior.

[xlv] Genesis 12:1.

[xlvi] Genesis 17:15-16.

[xlvii] See Chizkuni commentary on Genesis 24:53.

[xlviii] JT Peah 3a notes that doing Gemilat Chasadim (good deeds) for people is more precious than giving Tzedakah (charity). It explains this is so because it involves exerting personal effort or charitable giving; relates both to the poor or rich; and can be done for the living or dead. Thus, properly burying the dead is viewed as a Chesed Shel Emet (See Rashi commentary on Genesis 47:29 and Genesis Rabbah 96:5) Charity involves only giving money to the poor. The Talmud derives this lesson, scripturally, from Psalms 103:17. See also BT Sukkah 49b, which describes how Gemillat Chasadim is greater than Tzedakah for these three reasons.

[xlix] The 16th century Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew, in his work Netivot Olam (Netivat Gemilut Chasadim 2:6) explains that Gemillat Chasadim is greater than Tzedakah, which is, in effect, a subset of Gemillat Chasadim. It is to be distinguished from Tzedakah, which is viewed only from the perspective of the recipient, who is under pressure and in need of financial assistance. In contrast, Gemillat Chesed is viewed from the perspective of the grantor, who is doing good acts, whether the recipient asks for it or not. Moreover, because of the good he or she does, the Grantor becomes a good person, who can positively influence others. It is submitted this was the case with Eliezer, as a result of the Gemillat Chesed he did for Rebecca.

[l] In addition, to his credit, Eliezer did this Gemillat Chesed for Rebecca despite his erstwhile aspirations for his own daughter.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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