From protesting the obstacles placed in the path of citizenship for “Dreamers” to taking the administration to court on any proposed ban on refugees from select countries, Americans have been fiercely challenging government policy. Whether through establishing so-called “sanctuary cities” or by protesting en masse, a large segment of American citizens argue that the United States must stand for something more than the simplistic slogan of “America First.”

 

The idea that human beings ought to look beyond their own needs and consider the needs of others has a long and ancient history. Hillel, one of the preeminent religious authorities of the first century BCE, is quoted as teaching: “If am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel accepted the notion that people must champion themselves. (“If I am not for myself, who shall be for me?”) But when people become self-obsessed, they become less human.

 

I recently re-read a classic novel of the 1970’s, Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Ostensibly, it is the story of a father-son road trip through the Black Hills. But really is “an inquiry into values” as the sub-title suggests. The recurrent metaphor is that life is like a journey that can only be successfully traveled when your character (read, “motorcycle”) is in good working order. This requires regular maintenance. Accordingly, Pirsig observes: “On a mechanical repair job ego comes in for rough treatment. You’re always being fooled, you’re always making mistakes, and a mechanic who has a big ego to defend is at a terrific disadvantage.” He concludes that ego is one of the causes of “value rigidity,” meaning that when you think only of yourself, you leave no room for anyone and anything else. “Your ego isolates you from the Quality reality.”

 

The idea of looking beyond oneself is also intimated in the narrative on the plague of darkness. The Torah (Exodus 10:22-3) reports that the darkness was so profound that “no man could see his brother.” The Hasidic master Rabbi Henikh of Alexandropol taught that this refers to the unwillingness of the Egyptians to assist each other in crisis. The darkness was not so much the absence of light but the absence of empathy. That was the real implication of the plague.