William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Un-selfing

“You seem to know your way around that First Aid kit” gratefully said the person being bandaged by a rider who got off his bicycle to offer assistance. “Not really. I just listen a lot to health-related podcasts.”

Knowing a little about something can sometimes inflate our confidence. As we gain experience and build competence, we risk losing some of our humility. When we make rapid progress, we attain a false sense of mastery. We read a compelling posting or have a convincing conversation, and we become self-assured.

Thinking we’re more capable than we are isn’t necessarily bad. It can be important if it empowers us to discover and accomplish much. What’s essential is that we periodically ground ourselves. We do so not by cutting ourselves down, but by reorienting to a different vantage point.

In this week’s portion of Torah, the Hebrew word for ignoring someone or something, l’hitalem, occurs three times (Deut 22:1,3,4). The word itself composes a fascinating grammatical construct that makes personally reflexive the root of the word for world, olam . When the passages insist that we not ignore the needs of others, it is saying in effect, ‘you may not make yourself into an entire world’. To do so would be to make your interests and needs crowd out all those of others.

Something we might call ‘un-selfing’ can help. Novelist Iris Murdock offers an illustration of how it can work.

“I am looking out my window in an anxious frame of mind, brooding over some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a humming bird fluttering. All at once, everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt has disappeared. There is nothing now except the humming bird. And then, when it darts away and I return to my matters, their burden feels a bit lighter.”

Among the many norms established in this week’s portion is the command to send the mother bird away from her nest before removing her eggs. It teaches us to extend empathy for motherhood to all settings. It’s a way of reminding us of how, even upon the slight twigs of a mother bird’s nest, the threads of compassion may extend.

May this seasons forgiveness prayers and penitential psalms remind us how we need to go beyond ourselves to be at peace with ourselves.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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