We live in a time and age in which we are busier than ever before. In this age of multitasking, specialization, and tight economic climate, time seems to be one of the scarcest commodities people have. This is a challenge to everyone; yet to the committed Jew, it seems to represent an especially difficult challenge. With spiritual and religious responsibilities, the religious Jew finds himself walking an extra thin rope, attempting to balance scarce time and abundant responsibilities. It is at this point that the religious Jew finds himself in a serious moral dilemma: does one use this scarce remaining time for his or her own religious growth, or for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of others? Must one neglect his or her own spiritual growth for the sake of others?
This seems to be an ethical dilemma of the highest order. It becomes even more difficult and challenging when one has his or her own family and children; must one neglect one’s own growth for the spiritual and emotional needs of family?
Let us examine both possible answers to this question. On the one hand, one may advance the principle of “chayecha kodmin” (see Bava Metzia 62a) to argue that one should do all he can to maintain and preserve his own spiritual well being before attempting to further the spiritual and physical well being of others. One may not be expected to drop his own religious and spiritual responsibilities before going to help others, and one may not be expected to help others grow before assuring the growth and wellbeing of one’s own family and children.
On the other hand, we must note, the alternative does not seem plausible either. Must we abandon the principles of arayvut, chessed, and communal responsibility? Must we relinquish principles that have been the veritable epicenter of our religion for the past thousands of years? (See Bereshit 19:19, Yeshayahu 56:1, and Michah 6:8.) Surely not! So we are left with this seemingly irreconcilable conundrum of personal versus communal responsibility.
Rav Moshe Feinstein rules (Iggrot Moshe E.H. 26:4) that just as one should give a tenth of his income to charity, so too one should dedicate a tenth of his time to others.
However, I would like to point out an important corollary to Rav Moshe’s ruling, based on a story that took place in the early 1800s. A student of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter had become a successful businessman. One day, he presented the following question to Rabbi Salanter: “I have only fifteen free minutes a day,” he said. “In those fifteen minutes, what part of the Torah should I study?” Rabbi Salanter responded to him that in those fifteen minutes, he should learn mussar. “Do you mean that in the only fifteen minutes I have, I should study mussar? Not Gemara? Not Halacha, or Chumash?” the astonished student asked. “If you learn mussar for fifteen minutes a day,” Rabbi Salanter responded, “you will realize that you have more than just fifteen minutes a day to learn.”
Similarly, in our situation, without sensitivity to the needs of others, one cannot begin making suggestions or calculations. Before we acquire sensitivity, we are like Rabbi Salanter’s student who thought he did not have time. Furthermore, without sensitivity, we probably will not realize that people are really in need out there. Who would think that our roommate, classmate, or the person next to us in the Beis Midrash was going through difficult times, and that some interest, attention, and caring might save his day?
Who would think that a quick phone call before Shabbat to the orphan, widow, convert, or to the elderly, might be the thing that will give him or her strength to go through another challenging week? Clearly, a sharpened awareness about the pivotal roles chessed and mutual responsibility play in Judaism is necessary not only to realize that we have the tools for the solution in our hands, but also to see that there is a problem to begin with.
So how do we balance are our spiritual needs with the responsibilities to others? We dare not compromise our responsibilities to ourselves and to our families. But by realizing that the other is also a part of us, we will be able to realize that helping others is also, ultimately, helping ourselves.
Published in The YU Lamdan 2012