Parashat Maseh: Breaking the Selfish Instinct
Parashat Maseh introduces the law of "Ir Miklat," the cities of refuge where one would have to live after killing somebody accidentally. A modern-day example might be a case where one lowers a grand piano out of his house through the window with a pulley. The pulley system malfunctions, and the piano flies down the side of the house, killing an innocent pedestrian walking by. In such a case, the Torah requires the person who lowered the piano to relocate to an Ir Miklat. He must leave everything behind, including his synagogue, his community and his business, and move to one of the designated cities of refuge. He must remain there until the death of Kohen Gadol, regardless of how many years it takes.
This Misva teaches a powerful lesson about selfishness. An individual is held responsible for his careless behavior, for not alerting people to what he was doing and failing to ensure that nobody would be walking underneath the piano. And from the Torah’s perspective, this kind of carelessness is a direct outgrowth in selfishness. As we conduct our daily business, we need to be alert and look out for the needs of others. We cannot do what we want without thinking about how our actions and words might affect other people. If we are moving furniture out of our house, if we are driving, no matter what we are doing, we must think about others and not only about ourselves.
This might sound simple and self-evident, but unfortunately, it is a message that needs to be repeated and reinforced. We live in a very selfish generation, when people are exclusively focused on their own concerns and desires without showing concern for others. This accounts for the drastic rise of failed marriages, and for the alarming low birth rate in contemporary society. Marriage is all about sharing and giving consideration to somebody else, and raising children, as every parent knows, is all about giving of oneself to another person. In a generation that is not interested in giving, when people are looking out only for themselves, marriages break down and people do not want to have children.
One of the reasons for this trend is the high-pressured nature of modern society. Modern life imposes many perceived obligations upon a person, and in the race against the clock to get everything done, people naturally lose sight of their responsibilities towards others. This is reflected in the institution of Ir Miklat. The negligent person is brought away from the life he knows and is forced to slow down and think. Far away from his home, business and other responsibilities, he isn’t rushed to close a deal or to refurnish his home. He has time to think about others and take their needs into account.
There are many things we can do to try to break the selfish instinct and become more sensitive and caring people. One Rabbi tells his students before they got married to make a point of calling their wives whenever they are in a store to see if they need everything. Even if the husband is confident that his wife does not need anything from that store, he should still call, as a simple way of conveying the message that she is important to him, that he is thinking of her, that he is interested in her needs.
Another method is to get ourselves in the habit of giving compliments. Selfish people are too busy caring about themselves to pay compliments to other people. Accustoming ourselves to give compliments will have the effect of not only making the people around us feel good, but also opening our eyes to the qualities and accomplishments of others, rather than focusing only on ourselves.
Additionally, everybody should try to take some time to do some kind of volunteer work, to engage in some activity that benefits other people without offering remuneration. There are so many worthy organizations and institutions in our community that need manpower so they can do their wonderful work. If everyone in the community chose just one such project to get involved in, this would not only enhance the work of these organizations, but would turn all of us into more sensitive, generous, and giving people.
Finally – and I find it unfortunate that this needs to be mentioned – we must train ourselves to treat our workers with respect and dignity. Whether it’s a housekeeper, an employee in the store, a waiter in a restaurant, a broker, or anybody who does a service for us, it is our strict obligation to pay the person in a timely fashion and to speak with him or her with dignity and respect. There is no excuse for not leaving a waiter a generous tip after he serves us a meal, and there is no excuse for speaking to a housekeeper as though she is our slave. We have to think about their feelings, and their desire to support themselves and their families, and respect those feelings. How would we feel if we worked for somebody who did not pay us, or if somebody spoke to us disrespectfully? This is the kind of question we need to ask whenever we deal with people, keeping in mind their needs and feelings just as we keep in mind our own needs and feelings.
If we live with an awareness of other people’s needs, we will be happier and more content in life. Selfish people often expect too much and then feel disappointed and short-changed. But when we are genuinely concerned about others, we are less preoccupied about ourselves, and thus less anxious about filling our every wish. By becoming more sensitive, caring people, we in effect bring greater joy and fulfillment to ourselves and to others, and we help make our community and the world a much happier and more pleasant place to live.