What is meant by “self-interest?” A philosophical view.

The Holy Land.  Oil painting by Yishkah.


I have been stydying the Talmud  for almost a year now. I takes seven years to complete the course.  There are many interesting questions to be addressed, but the issue of good deeds and self interest is one that has captivated my mind for some time.  Here is a daily lesson, this one on mitzvot and self-interest.

It was taught: One who says “I am contributing to charity so that my son will live,” or if he says “I am performing the mitzvah so that I will be destined for the World to Come,” this person is a fully righteous person 

This teaching affirms that what really matters is the outcome of our actions, not our motivations. In philosophical terms, this is a consequentialist position. 

But this is not the only rabbinic view on this ethical dilemma. Pirkei Avot, that famous mishnaic tractate of pithy statements and ethical maxims, offers this:

Antigonos, man of Sokho, learned from Shimon the Righteous who would say, “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward, rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.” (Pirkei Avot 1:3)

This mishnah suggests that acting in order to be rewarded is by no means laudatory, and would in fact disqualify someone from being characterized as a fully righteous person. According to this teaching, good deeds should be motivated purely by obligation to the almighty God who commanded them. 

So which is it? Does Jewish tradition expect us to perform good deeds purely because it is the right thing to do, or can we factor in a dose of self-interest without counting ourselves any less righteous? The Talmudic commentators known collectively as Tosafot address this question directly in their commentary on our page.

“The statement in Pirkei Avot refers to a situation when if the good that one hopes for does not come, one regrets the charity that was given. However, one who does not regret, such a person is completely righteous.”

In other words, Tosafot understand that wanting a reward does not detract from the good of giving tzedakah (or doing some other good deed) — and doesn’t even detract from one’s character— as long as the person doesn’t regret giving the tzedakah in the event that they do not receive the anticipated reward.

Tosafot’s harmonization recognizes that human nature may often (always?) incline people to desire a reward for their actions, and that in and of themselves, these instincts and desires are not bad. In fact, the prospect of a reward can be a motivating factor that leads people to do good. Yet we must also take satisfaction in the deed itself — there is clearly something dangerous about regretting the good we have done in the world when we are not rewarded for it.

Perhaps the concern here is not about what happens in the moment, but rather how our motivations impact our character, who we are as people. Wanting a reward is not a character flaw, and may even contribute to the development of positive traits such as generosity. Hence one can ask for a reward and still be considered a full-fledged righteous person. But if we regret our good actions when they are not rewarded, we may choose not to perform mitzvot or act kindly in the future — and this means that our self-interest has morphed into selfishness. We can no longer claim the mantle of righteousness.

Rabbi Shuli Passow is the director of community engagement at B’nai Jeshurun in New York, where she teaches a weekly Daf Yomi class.


Having trained in psychoanalysis and therapy and having had to deal with the worst kinds of human behaviour, I take a psychological and philosophical view of righteousness. If we believe G-d acts through people, as I do, then all actions are motivated by self-interest. We have animal instincts and, like it or not; our main priority is survival. If I do not survive a trauma, how might I help my fellow human in his or her difficult times? This does not mean we take on a hedonist view of life. It simply means we submit to our failings with humility and seek to improve. We have a G-d given duty to survive and relish the life we   have, but not at the cost of others. How do we mediate these circumstances? The question for me is this, is self-preservation a selfish position? Or is it a gift of independent thinking and free will that allows us to take responsibility and better ourselves, which in turn encourages others to do the same. Our mistakes are our lessons. It comes down to an age old philosophical question of what “is” or what “ought” to be. What “ought” to be does not account for those painful pathways that help us build our character and values. Healthcare workers do a brave and outstanding job, but they could not do it if they were not rewarded – paid. How else would they survive? Altruism has its place, but it is not always the appropriate answer to serious problems. Suffice to say, we are all answerable to our own conscience, which is guided by our learned values and experiences. If we are lucky we have had good teachers, but not everyone has had this privilege. Sometimes we must learn to stand in the other’s shoes.

The Lion of Judah.

The Lion as an emblem has been used and usurped by many and we hear little about its tribal origins. How important is it to bring the past into the future for a better understanding of our world and those who inhabit it? I think it is very important. We cannot dwell on the negative events of the past, but it is crucial to remember our histories, otherwise humanity is simply destined to make the same mistakes over and over again. I have had the good fortune of spending several years in South Africa where I witnessed lions in the wild. They are monumental creatures, they are predators that are both fierce and gentle. The lion reflects much of the human character, it charts its territory and guards it fastidiously. It lives in communes when the collective suits it and knows exactly when to move on. The lion can be both friend and enemy, but it always commands respect, simply for its grandeur. The Romans threw people to the lions for sport. Daniel sat peacefully among the lions unharmed by them. The lion can remind us of our options. How we approach a situation will determine its outcome.

The Marriage of Asenath and Joseph.


One of the first stories to inspire my study of the mandala was the telling of the marriage between Joseph and Asenath. There are several versions of this story, but I chose to depict the mystical one, which is slightly more complex in structure than most. The story is an astrological allegory, in which Joseph represents the Sun and Asenath the Moon. The most common version of the story was written in Greek making the marriage the “hieros gamos” or the union of Helios and Selene. The symbolism is clear, Joseph represents the Savior and Asenath, the Fallen Wisdom.  The text is similar to many of the mystery cults that juxtapose good and evil.  The story, gleaned from the Jewish Virtual Library proceeds like this:

The entry of the proselyte into the community is marked by a sacred feast. The neophyte eats “the bread of life,” drinks from “the cup of immortality,” and is anointed with the “function of incorruptibility” (15:4). He is then “renewed,” “reformed,” and “revivified” (8:11; 15:4)”. Joseph and Asenath are then viewed as the representatives of “mystical Judaism,”hitherto endorsed as viable amid much controversy. The text is the product of Egyptian Jewry, but is not necessarily the work of a Therapeut (Essene). The author may have been an Egyptian of the Chora (“region,” i.e., outside of Alexandria) converted to Judaism, or, more probably, the Jewish issue of a mixed marriage. Joseph and Asenath must have been composed shortly before the Jewish revolt against Trajan. Joseph and Asenath is also of interest, since the story is repeated in the passions of Saint Barbara, Saint Christine, and Saint Irene. Joseph and Asenath is also the basis for the Persian tale Yūsufo Zuleikhā. There is an English translation by E.W. Brooks, Joseph and Asenath (1918). 1

For me the story is about the marriage between Earth and the Universe, Heaven and humans. In each age we create a new reality out of the ancient stories. As it states in the Siddur.

In each age we are challenged by our ancient teaching.

At each age we stand face to face with truth.

In each age we add our wisdom to that which has gone before…


MIndfulness and Art.

                                                                   Art  by Yishkah.

The mandala was once regarded as a vessel for life’s mysteries, especially when used in the Kabbalah. Why was this so? Was it because the intricacies of the designs drew our attention to a deeper level of thoughtfulness? Was it because the repetition in the mandala replicated the repetition in our daily lives? When I was a therapist I was never completely happy with just listening to peoples’ stories. I saw my role as teaching others to be their own therapist. We must all learn to track our thoughts and take responsibility for ourselves. As a species we have had very little control over our thinking. We allow our thoughts to run wild to a point where it is hard to reign them in or assess them. It was Sigmund Freud who pointed out just how little control we have over our minds, he used the image of an iceberg to demonstrate his theories on the unconscious. He maintained that our minds are like the iceberg, only a small portion is above the water, the rest is below. The mandala helps us to delve into the icy waters of the mind. It teaches us mindfulness. Art is a form of mindfulness and mindfulness is an art.



I am reading a book at the moment called “Coincidences in the Bible and in Biblical Hebrew” by Haim Shore. It is a fascinating work and it makes one realize just how everything is connected. The mandala has, over the centuries, attempted to tell this story of connection and in particular how we are connected by language and signs. The book made me think about how language structures our brain and our lives. We all grow through language. I know very little Hebrew, but what has struck me is that Hebrew has many synonyms and they all seem to go back to the same source, just like us. “Yes”, we are indeed all connected.


Some of my mandalas are classical circles and squares, others are mandalas within pictures or on backgrounds. Some are acrylic on paper and measure 28cm x 40cm. Others are oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm and 60 x 50cm. Because the works are book illustrations, I can mix up the sizes and mediums. This allows for different textures so the images don’t all look the same. It also adds variety to the task.