Everyone wants to contribute something significant to the world, to play a meaningful part in the cosmic symphony we call life. This desire is an inherent part of being human. We yearn to expand beyond our limited sphere of existence, to become a part of something meaningful, something infinitely greater than ourselves. Although often channeled through ego and the desire for fame, this yearning stems from a deep, spiritual place. We possess a deep inner knowledge that, at root, we are part of something infinitely greater than ourselves. Each of us is an 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, more successful? This is the human saga, a tale of struggle and progress, setback and growth. This theme is powerfully expressed in this week's parsha, Acharei Mos.
Acharei Mos begins by describing the avodah (Divine service) that Aharon Ha'Kohen performed on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Aharon is commanded to first bring a korban (sacrifice) to atone for his own sins, and then bring the korban 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 selfless, unceasingly devoted to his or her people, putting the Jewish 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?
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, was 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 seems to completely contradict another famous statement made by Rabbi Akiva. One of Rabbi Akiva's most famous statements and principles is, "v'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha, zeh klal gadol b'Torah" - Love your friend as you love yourself, this is the most foundational principle in the Torah (Toras Kohanim 19:45, Rashi- Vayikra 19:18). If this statement is true, and if it represents Rabbi Akiva's view, 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?
In order to understand Rabbi Akiva's seemingly contradictory statements, as well as the order of Aharon's korbanos, we must understand the concept of giving in greater depth. The fundamental prerequisite for giving is that you must first have that which you want to give. In order to contribute to this world, you must first build something worth contributing. In order to truly love others, you must first love yourself. The first step of life is building internally, developing your own skills and gifts. This means building your mind and inner world, developing your beliefs and convictions, your understanding of Hashem and His Torah. Simultaneously, we must develop our middos (character traits) and personality, work on our self-discipline, 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.
Many people have an incredible desire to give, but nothing to actually contribute. It's wonderful to dream of giving one million dollars to tzedakah (charity). But if you have no money, that desire is not very helpful. It's marvelous to want to be a role model and a teacher, but if you possess no knowledge, nor character traits to be emulated, what good is that? Of course, the desire itself is praiseworthy, and may one day lead to something extraordinary, but at present, nothing can be contributed. The same goes for marriage. Marriage can only be as great 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?
This understanding of giving sheds light on Rabbi Akiva’s seemingly contradictory statements. Chayecha kodmin isn't a contradiction to vi'ahavta li'rei'acha kamocha, it's a prerequisite for its ideal fulfilment. Only if you first invest in yourself can you then expand outwards and give to others. Only once you embrace your true "self" and discover your potential can you truly fall in love with yourself. It is only after you love yourself that you can then expand outwards and love someone else. Chayecha kodmin is the first step of fulfilling vi'ahavta li'rei'acha kamocha. Thus, investing in yourself is the most selfless form of selfishness, as it becomes the very foundation and prerequisite for giving itself.
With this principle in mind, let us explore the process of human growth. Many people grow from the outside in. They look around at society, their friends, the people around them, and then shape themselves to mirror those surroundings. The clothes they wear, the food they eat, and the things they talk about all reflect their external surroundings. 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 you.
This model couldn’t be further from the ideal. Each one of us is created with our own unique potential, waiting to be actualized. Our job in life is to discover who we really are, to express our dormant perfection. 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, who reflects everything outside himself, we can become projectors. We can build something majestic and beautiful within ourselves, and then express that out into the world. This is also the difference between thermometers and thermostats. A thermometer reflects its environment; the temperature outside determines its internal state. A thermostat, however, is unaffected by the external state of things. It first builds the reality within itself, and then expresses that outwards into the external environment. A true model of growth is where we first develop ourselves internally, and then express that out into the world.
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 expand outwards, helping all of Klal Yisrael build their connection with Hashem.
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, focused on learning and investing in themselves as much as possible. However, when properly understood, investment is imperative at every age. In order to give, we must first invest in ourselves, creating something powerful within to express outwards. Therefore, at all stages in life we must balance these two principles: investing and contributing. Sometimes there may be more time and energy spent on investment, and sometimes on contribution, but they must always remain partners in our approach to life. It's never too late to grow, 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 that balance one way or the other. May we be inspired to endlessly invest in ourselves while realizing that everything we invest into me, can ultimately be contributed into We.
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