Rabbi Kass' Viewpoint: What Triggers Heroism?
At the start of human civilization, we are told that God asked Cain: “Where is Abel, thy brother?” Cain replied: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” With that response of indifference and apathy began the long and disturbing tale of man’s inhumanity to man which comprises the bulk of history. The nadir of this human inclination occurred during World War II when six million Jews were annihilated as countless multitudes of so-called “good” and “decent” people looked on in acquiescence, if not approval.
Fortunately this is not the whole story of mankind’s career. We also have the case of a woman who cares for lepers in the Far East and a man who runs an international adoption agency for crippled or unwanted children. Indeed, the same Holocaust which affords the most glaring manifestations of cruelty and brutality likewise produced unbelievably moving and touching tales of human concern and self-sacrifice. There is the case of an S.S. officer who concealed a Jewish couple until the end of the war in his living quarters above the S.S. Center in Berlin. There was also a Belgian countess who not only hid 100 Jewish women and children on her estate but also cooked kosher food for them. What can you say in sufficient praise of a Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat, who used his status to save hundreds of Hungarian Jews? Wallenberg manufactured passes that made Jews candidates for Swedish citizenship, thereby protecting them from the Germans. He even risked his life by giving out these passes to Jews who were waiting in line for Nazi deportation trains.
What is it that turns some people into a Cain and others into a Raoul Wallenberg? Interestingly enough, these two types who represent the opposite poles of human behavior have more in common than you might think. To be sure, the Cains of the world are totally self-centered and completely preoccupied with their own wants and needs. That does not mean, however, that the Wallenbergs are bereft of self-concern. On the contrary, the preponderance of thinking among contemporary psychologists, including such eminent experts as Abraham Maslow and Erich Fromm, is that altruistic people have a strong sense of self-worth and security. People who are happy with themselves, care about themselves, and feel good about themselves are the ones most likely to do a good turn for another. This was, incidentally, the thinking of Hillel whose ideas on this subject began with the observation: “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” The difference between the Cains and the Wallenbergs is that the former stop here while the latter go on to raise the second point in Hillel’s aphorism: “But, if I am only for myself what am I?”
The big question is what is it that triggers this capacity to transcend self in behalf of others. Many psychologists believe that the most crucial role is played by such positive role models as parents and teachers. Professor David Rosenhan of Stanford University did a study of civil rights activists which found that most of the outstanding leaders of that movement had parents who exemplified for their children such qualities as perseverance and courage. It is the absence of positive role models that explains “the disappearance of character in our society.” As Dr. Rosenhan puts it: “Altruism and courage are often connected issues, they are part of the right thing to do! There was a time when we did this. But now kids don’t see these qualities in their parents or teachers. Everyone is sort of trying to get along, stay out of trouble and make ends meet.”
In the long run, altruism may be the most enlightened form of self-interest. If we go out of our way to try to help others, maybe in our hour of need, people will do the same for us. Thus, in explanation of the altruistic act of planting trees which will be enjoyed only by future generations, the rabbis of the Talmud declared: “My fathers planted for me, and I will plant for my children” (Tannit, 23A). Reasonable people desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.
Acts of altruism may still be the exceptional reality which we encounter only occasionally in a world dominated by selfishness and egotism. Nevertheless, it is what makes the whole enterprise of civilization worthwhile. As Rabbi Abbahu put it: “The world exists only because of those who disregard their own existence” (Hullin, 89A). As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, it behooves us to express our gratitude for these special people who think of others besides themselves.