“Human existence is not authentic unless it is lived in terms of self-transcendence.”
– Viktor Frankl, 1966, p. 104
One of Viktor Frankl’s most essential contributions to psychology was his highlighting the importance of self-transcendence and its contribution to a sense of meaning. Paul Wong has been championing a second wave of positive psychology that integrates Frankl’s existential approach with the more general positive psychology focus on happiness. Self-transcendence is the shift away from our own egoistic and self-centered orientations to a focus on something greater than ourselves. According to Frankl this concept is constitutive of what it means to be human, as he puts succinctly: “To reiterate a statement of mine, being human is directed to something other than itself (1966, p. 102).
In a more recent article entitled “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience,” David Yaden, Jonathan Haidt and colleagues (2017) note that “substantial clinical research supports the view that excessive self-focus is associated with a number of negative outcomes” (p. 150). However, self-transcendent experiences that comprise “decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness” (p. 143) offer a host of psychological and moral benefits, including social connectedness, the desire to help others (Algoe & Haidt, 2009) and altruistic behavior (Schnall, Roper, & Fessler, 2010).
In this Mishna, we are introduced to another of Rabban Gamilel’s mottos, this one concerning self-transcendence:
He used to say: do His will as though it were your will, so that He will do your will as though it were His. Set aside your will in the face of His will, so that He may set aside the will of others for the sake of your will.
The two related clauses seem to be emphasizing two different varieties of self-transcendence for the sake of the Divine. The first is framed in the positive, proactive sense: “do His will.” While the second indicates a message of self-control: “set aside your will.”
Setting aside our will for G-d may seem like a sacrifice, but Rabban Gamliel emphasizes that this self-transcendent strategy will be beneficial for us as well. As noted, an overly self-focus is harmful. Often, our egoistic desires can be self-destructive. It is therefore imperative to rely on G-d’s will instead of our own. To illustrate this point, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski turns to his expertise in treating alcoholism. He writes:
Once an alcoholic recognizes the destructive nature of his drinking and decides to overcome it, one of the steps he takes is “to turn my will over to G-d.” Alcoholism has been described as “self-will run riot.” The person who wishes to recover recognizes that his own will is unreliable, because it was his yielding to his will that led to his downfall. He must therefore set-aside his own will and accept the will of G-d is that which should guide him in his behavior.
In terms of the first clause, “do His will as though it were your will,” seems to connote a more positive form of self-transcendence. Many commentators understand the message as being one of motivation. The choice to transcend our own selves in service of the ultimate Other shouldn’t be done with a sense of dread and burden. When performing G-d’s will, we should experience the same desire, love, excitement, fervor, and devotion that we would have when pursuing our own choices and goals.
One question though remains unresolved. What exactly is encompassed by the term “G-d’s will?” If it just means performing G-d’s commandments, it should have said “mitzvato,” not “retzono.” Rather, Rabbi Yosef Yavetz argues that Rabban Gamliel is not talking about mitzvot, but about a level of self-control and dedication above and beyond the strict contours of command. As Ramban points out, one could technically not violate a specific command but still be considered a scoundrel within the bounds of the law (“naval birshut ha-Torah”). The message here is to go above and beyond the law and conform to G-d’s will. Formulated more positively, Rabbi Dr. Normal Lamm writes:
But the mere performance of the divine commandment, his mitzvah, does not exhaust the relation of G-d and man. There is much that goes beyond mitzvot – and overplus of meaning, whole worlds that transcend the idea of mitzvah or commandment. This is the area of retzono shel Makom, the will of G-d. G-d wants of us more than He commands us; His ratzon is far greater than His mitzvah. The divine mitzvah is something that every Jew can, with enough exertion, perform completely. But that extra something beyond the commandment, namely, the ratzon is what each individual must strive to realize and actualize, according to his own ability and talent.
In a powerful interpretation, Sforno blurs the distinction between transcending oneself for G-d and transcending for others. According to Sforno, G-d’s will is precisely “to make efforts on behalf of His people.” Rabban Gamliel is teaching us that we should be “as one who wants and desires and rejoices in this goal, “as if it were your own will.’… And in your efforts [on behalf of the community], “Nullify your will” desire for pleasure and rest for the sake of achieving “His will” – namely, to save His people (translation by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, p. 37).
Being human is about transcending the self. We transcend the self by experiencing positive emotions when choosing to follow G-d’s guidance and by submitting our own will to G-d’s desires. This act of transcending the self has prosocial ramifications as well as our desire for altruism and to help others increases. Following this powerful message of Rabban Gamliel will no doubt lead to strong connections to G-d and others and imbue our lives with meaning and fulfillment.