What are the moral parameters of pursuing our own self-interest versus being responsible for others? This is one of the central questions of moral philosophy and one of the central debates in our society today.
On one extreme, there are politicians, economists, philosophers and pundits who argue we should be concerned only with our own lives. If everyone did that, society would function effectively and efficiently.
On the other extreme, there are politicians, economists, philosophers and pundits who argue that only if we put others first can society prosper.
Evidence shows us that neither is right.
Self-interest alone does nothing to help those society leaves behind, the sick, the less educated, the impoverished. Putting society first at the expense of the individual can lead to oppression and the trampling of human rights and dignity.
This week’s Torah portion suggests that both extremes are wrong. Our portion begins, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse:” (Deuteronomy 11:26) Our sages, of blessed memory, point out that the Hebrew grammar of this verse is problematic. The first word, See, is a verb; a command in the first person, singular. But the you, is plural. From this seeming contradiction of verb tense and subject they derived that the good of the individual and the good of society as a whole are intertwined.
If we act solely for ourselves our society will be cursed, but if we think of others, as well as ourselves, our society will be blessed. The choice is ours.