Monday, April 23, 2007

Nice Guys Finish Last?

Many of you might be familiar with a scene from Seinfeld that I thoroughly enjoyed. I believe it was Babu, an immigrant from G-d-knows-where, who tried to open a restaurant, and Jerry decided to help him out. He sat in the deserted place, offered Babu advice, and even tolerated his overzealous service. As Jerry sat, he thought, "Look at me! Look what a nice guy I am. Nobody else goes to this cafe. I am helping this guy, trying to make him succeed. I'm a good person..." was the voice-over.

I think many of us feel that way. Especially when the person you're helping thanks you profusely. I was in Boro Park on Friday, and a woman on the corner of 13th avenue asked me if she could borrow my cell phone. Her son was on the bus home from school, and he was 20 minutes late. She wanted to call the school and see what was going on. The school put her on hold, and never got back to her. She thanked me, and handed me my phone. "I'm going to my grandmother now, but if you're still here when I come out, you can use it again," I offered. Sure enough, about 20 minutes later, she was still there, and I gladly lent her my phone. She thanked me profusely, and I almost felt good about myself.

Then I remembered the words of wisdom my teacher in HS told me, "If you feel pleasure in doing chesed, it's a lower level." I mean, obviously, there's Chesed Shel Emes, which deals with the dead, since you know they can't return the favor. Well, where does this fall? I pictured myself in this woman's place, her little boy is 20 minutes late, the Yeshiva said he's on the bus, and he's the second stop. I'd be pretty nervous. So what was the big deal? Now, what if I had been over my minutes, and I knew it. Would I have done it? Or would I have handed her a quarter for the payphone on that very corner?

Then the question is, would I get more of a mitzvah if I gave her my phone if I was out of minutes? But then if she took as long as she did, I might be upset, which would negate the mitzvah, would it not?

I remember this teacher telling us that if we feel satisfaction from the chesed "down here," it essentially takes away from "up there." Is that a good thing to tell high school kids? I mean, there are various chesed projects I'm involved in, and I think, by nature, chesed is fulfilling. When you help people, and you see their faces light up, or you hear them breathe a sigh of relief, what are you supposed to do? Isn't Judaism about being happy? Shouldn't be happy-happy with myself, too-that I helped someone?

There was a girl in seminary who was from overseas, and had no family here. She had gone back and came to NY a few months later to prepare for her wedding. A few girls threw her a bridal shower, which I attended, and drove her home (to a basement where someone allowed her to stay rent-free for a few weeks) despite the late night, the distance, and my schoolwork that I hadn't done. On the way, I was feeling pretty good. "All these other girls with cars, and I drove the extra distance, helped her bring her gifts down, chatted with her a few minutes..." I thought.
As I drove home, I suddenly felt horrible. "Why am I so full of myself? Am I letting this kid live in my basement, hosting her, rent-free? Have I helped her do anything else?" I was overcome with guilt.

I told this to my brother, and he battled me with logic. "So you're saying what you've done is worthless?" That's how I felt. Possibly due to what this teacher said. Every time I feel fulfilled from doing chesed, I remember this teacher. I did something wrong by feeling good. I feel like I have just made my mitzvah into a smaller one, by feeding my ego.

Something tells me this teacher was mistaken. I hope she was, anyway.


At 4/23/2007 8:01 PM, Anonymous gavi said...

I would say this teacher said it wrong. We do preach "lishmah" - doing a mitzvah purely for its sake, without any feeling of joy besides that of serving hashem.

But doing a chessed because it makes you feel good to help someone is an incredible thing - you have worked on yourself so hard to become sensitized to the needs of others, possibly seeing that they need something when others do not - sounds like a definite kiyyum of "veahavta lereacha kamocha" - lishma, because you want to do the mitzvah properly.


In general, I would never feel bad at doing a mitzvah because I don't measure up to some lofty theoretical standard - I take what I have, and work on myself step by step. Feeling good about doing mitzvos is a very high madrega: it is on the level of "bittul hayesh," where your personal, free will becomes that of Hashem - when you do the mitzvah joyfully, you demonstrate that you really want to. Getting pleasure or "sippuk" from these actions is a healthy thing - positive reinforcement. That is why mitzvos follow each other (as per the mishnah in pirkei avos).

At 4/23/2007 10:06 PM, Blogger muse said...

Did I miss something? Where was the child?

At 4/23/2007 10:26 PM, Blogger Dofan Akuma said...

There's a girl I know who was redt a shidduch by an older woman whom she used to babysit for. So the would-be shadchan lady also advised the girl and pushed her to continue going out even though the girl is not so into it. It gets to the point where the girl is done (after spending more time on this guy than she would have otherwise). She dumps the guy.
Next thing, the girl gets engaged through a different shadchan and without asking the first shadchan for advice. This first shadchan-wanna-be's reaction is to stop talking to the girl. She literally stonewalls this poor girl, who even goes out of her way (sending a nice shalach manos, etc.) to try to make up for her 'insult' of getting engaged.
The only way I can understand this is that the older lady's real motive was that she wanted the pride that goes with making a shidduch, or maybe just the feeling of being needed. That the girl should get married was at best secondary. When the girl didn't need her anymore she was slapped with the realization that she wasn't so essential and reacted like a witch.
This is why a bad motive is something to be at least aware of.

At 4/24/2007 5:17 AM, Blogger David Fryman said...

Babu is Pakastani.

At 4/24/2007 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps in your case the healthy thing to do is to take the idea of chessed out of the equation. Do what you think is right. Let the chips fall where they may. When Judaism turns into neurosis, it's time to reevaluate what you're doing. I heard in the name of R' Dovid Cohen that doing mitzvos unhealthily is so bad that the person is better off getting better and then resuming mitzvos.

At 4/24/2007 9:33 AM, Blogger Michelle said...

I don't know. The woman thanked me and sent me on my way. I had to go pick up my brother.

As for the Shidduch thing--yes, I might have written a piece (or thought about it) how people get upset when others "steal" the shidduch. Like if someone calls for information, and the info-giver becomes the go-between. I don't think s/he does it for the credit, i think they don't realize. I mean, it's not a nice thing to do, but the original shadchan deserves shadchanus, and shouldn't get all annoyed-- isn't the point the two who are getting married?

but was it Babu? I wasn't sure.

At 4/24/2007 11:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

fyi-there are clear guidelines as far as who gets shadchanus, and they include originalperson who mentioned it, person that arranged it etc. with clear amounts for each party.

At 4/24/2007 12:50 PM, Blogger Orthoprax said...

A question in ethics is a matter of altruism - doing something good without getting anything in return, i.e. lishmah, as you said.

This becomes problematic when a) you are doing something for the sake of reward (be it in this world or in a future state) and b) if the good feelings you get are a reward in themselves.

Personally, I don't know if this idealized altruism is necessarily something practical or even good to pursue, but I do think it is a good idea to keep in mind that you ought not be doing a benevolent act for the sake of good feelings or for other reward, but simply because it is the right thing to do.

There's nothing wrong with feeling good after doing good, but take stock into what you did - or what you could have done (as you did in your post) - and you'll often realize that you don't deserve all the great credit you are giving yourself.

"I remember this teacher telling us that if we feel satisfaction from the chesed "down here," it essentially takes away from "up there.""

I would say that this demonstrates a poor understanding of ethics and is just an effort to replace one reward for another.

At 4/24/2007 3:02 PM, Blogger Semgirl said...

Chas V Shalom Michelle. Mtoch Shelo Lishmoh Bo Lishmoh.Depression is the absolute worse thing. A big Rebbe once said, depression isnt an aveira, but it leads to the worst aveiras. That is all this line of thinking will bring you to..

Do Chesed, be B'Simchah about it, and the rest will follow...

And try to learn Chovos Lovovos a few minutes each day..

At 4/24/2007 7:04 PM, Blogger Dofan Akuma said...

In my story above, the girl got engaged to a different guy. There was no question about who should get the shadchanus. Sorry for any confusion.

At 4/25/2007 3:32 PM, Anonymous ARI said...

SOMBODY correct me if I am wrong but feeling good that you helped someone is good and perfectly NORMAL maybe what you are talkin about is feeling good that this lady thanked you or that this girl had appreciation towards YOU. That sounds more like taking so reward down.

At 4/25/2007 6:20 PM, Anonymous ike said...

Semgirl, we're waiting for a new post!!!

At 4/25/2007 8:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


logically, your statement has flaws--

depression is not the absolute worst thing if it leads to worse things. What the rebbe in your story seems to have been talking about is real depression, which happens to be a form of illness. it is curable, you know.

At 4/25/2007 8:51 PM, Anonymous Xvi said...

Maybe I understand mitzvos differently, but a mitzvah is not generally a blind obligation. The torah is not a guideline to life in the sake that you cannot comprehend the purposes for it. It is an ethical set of rules that is self-validated. Thats what makes it as beautiful as it is. Following from that concept, its probably even worse to do something just for the s'char of the action. That makes it a truly selfish act. Realizing that what you did was a good deed, and taking pleasure in that fact, goes significantly further in reinforcing that behavior in the future, which is what I think God really wants anyway.

That may seem a little Kantian, but it just strikes me as logical and reasonable. Concepts that are not mutually exclusive from Judaism, regardless of what you may have heard.

At 4/25/2007 9:05 PM, Blogger Orthoprax said...


As far as I understand Kant, he gives no moral worth to acts derived from good feelings. He's all about the concept of duty.

"To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations. . . . For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination." - Kant

At 4/26/2007 1:36 AM, Blogger Alex said...


Please consider writing news pieces or an op-ed for Jewrusalem: Israeli Uncensored News. We strive to present different views and opinions while rejecting political correctness. Ideally, we try to make the news "smart and funny." Thus, your input is very welcome.


At 4/26/2007 7:35 PM, Anonymous whatevah said...

Michelle, big deal u lent sum1 yer fone- get over yerself

At 4/26/2007 10:35 PM, Anonymous lbp said...

The person who made the statement about depression was the Bal Shem Tov. He said that there is something that is not an avaira but is worse b/c it will lead to many avairos and this is depression. It's not an actual avaira but depression prevents a person from serving Hashem properly and this leads to many avairos.
This was not referring to clinical depression as the Bal Shem Tov lived during the 1700 when clinical depression was not a recognized illness.
Another thought is the word in Hebrew for depression is Atzvut. It is only one letter off from the Hebrew word Atzlut - laziness. They are closely related, a person who is not active will become depressed and depression leads to lethargy and disinterest.

At 4/26/2007 10:51 PM, Anonymous reich said...

I think that it's wonderful to be happy that another Jew is being helped. Yes it's you helping them but it's like 2 siblings helping each other. Not only do they feel good about helping but it's even more special b/c they are helping a sibling and that in itself is a reason to be happy. You are also helping out one of Hashems children and that makes Hashem "happy", so of course it’s a reason to feel good.
When you are helping another Jew (or anyone for that matter) you are doing a mitzvah. A mitzvah is something we where commanded to do by Hashem. Hashem wants us to take pleasure in doing what he commands us to do* and this is a situation where you are taking pleasure in fulfilling a mitzvah.

* One of the reasons that the Jews needed to wait for 49 days before receiving the torah is b/c they needed to accept it with feeling. A slave does anything he is told but he has not feelings towards it. Hashem didn't want slaves he wanted children who rejoice in doing his will. We are supposed to do Torah and Mitzvos out of love and awe not just by rote.

At 4/28/2007 9:45 PM, Blogger Lost said...

Bull freakin Shiznit.
Are there really people in this world that do acts of kindness robotically and with out knowledge of the 'sechar'?
An illustration:
This shabbos I spent some time with my cousins and offered to take the kids out to the park for an hour.
I did this 'immeasurable' act because I was giving the rents a much needed break.
And I was thanked. Profusely. And I felt good. Natural response, was it not?

No, it's doubtful that do-gooders are supposed to yap about their accomplishments to every Joe, but feeling good about a mitzva?
It's almost as good as getting a note put on a mitzva tree! ;)

At 6/27/2007 6:56 PM, Blogger Hefcuz said...

One of the the Ba’al Ha’Tanyah’s teachings is that if you do a mitzvah often, eventually you’ll do the mitzvah lishmah.
There was a Chasid of the Ba’al Ha’Tanyah who was wealthy and gave a lot of tzedakah.
This particular Chasid, who gave lots of tzedakah, felt he hadn’t reached the level of giving tzedakah lishmah. So, he went to his Rebbe, the Ba’al Ha’Tanyah and expressed his regret in not being able to perform the mitzvah of tzedakah lishmah. The baal hatanyah responded; “the poor person has what to eat.”

We live in a physical world, where doing the physical mitzvoh matters most. Ideally mitzvos should be lishmah, but that is a very high level of mitzvah. Even if we haven’t reached that ideal level, the most important element the mitzvah, physically doing it has its desired affect, brings nachas to the Rebono Shel Olam and connects the individual to Hashem eternally.

At 6/27/2007 6:56 PM, Blogger Hefcuz said...

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