Photo Credit: Jewish Press

“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.”

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“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. 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. 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?

 

Aharon’s Avodah

When describing the avodah that Aharon HaKohen performed on Yom Kippur, the Torah states that Aharon is commanded to first bring a korban to atone for his own sins, and then one 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 selflessly devoted, putting the people’s needs before their 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’Reiacha Kamocha

This same issue lies at the core of a discussion that takes place in the Gemara (Bava Metzia 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 completely contradicts another well-known principle of his – “V’ahavta l’reiacha 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, 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. The first step of life is building internally, developing our own skills and gifts. This means building our mind and inner world, developing our understanding of Hashem and His Torah. Simultaneously, we must develop our middos and personality, 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 tzedakah, 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 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 themselves 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’reiacha 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’reiacha kamocha. Thus, investing in ourselves is the most selfless form of selfishness, as it becomes the very foundation and prerequisite for giving.

 

The Process of Human Growth

With this principle in mind, let us explore the process of human growth. Many people grow from the outside in. They look around at their friends, their family, and society, and then shape themselves to fit their surroundings. The clothes they wear, the food they eat, and the things they talk about all reflect their external environment. In this model, a person is a slab of clay, and the goal of life is to fit as neatly as possible into the molds that society creates for them. This couldn’t be further from the ideal. Each one of us is created with our own unique potential. Our job in life is to discover who we really are. Growth isn’t about becoming great, it’s about becoming you; learning isn’t about discovery, it’s about self-discovery. You are born as a masterpiece masked by confusion; your job in this world is to uncover yourself.

Instead of becoming a mirror, reflecting everything outside back, we can become projectors. We can build something majestic and beautiful within ourselves and then project that out into the world. A true model of growth is where we first develop ourselves internally and then express that out into the world.

 

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 help 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 twenties who are still in school or at the beginning of their careers. However, when properly understood, investment is imperative at every age. In order to give, we must first invest in ourselves, creating something powerful within that 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.

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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 educator and speaker who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah thought, Jewish medical ethics, psychology, and leadership. He is also the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received Semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS, a master’s degree in education from Azrieli Graduate School, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Bernard Revel Graduate School. He then spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Scholar. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife and son where he is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: ShmuelReichman.com.