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Understanding the Motivations Behind Selfless Acts: Why Good People Do Good Things

The story of Rachel and Leah demonstrates the importance of gratitude and empathy in fostering a more compassionate and connected world.

The Torah is full of stories of sibling rivalry that range from hidden hatred to outright murder. However, in Vayeitze, we see a refreshing change in the sisterly love between Rachel and Leah.

You probably know about Rachel's act of selflessness when she switched places with her older sister, Leah, under the marriage canopy (and the marital bed) to spare Leah from the shame of marrying Jacob's immoral and depraved older brother, Esau.

Are you aware that years later, Leah returned the favor?

Leah, the wife of Jacob, prayed to have a daughter as her seventh child. She knew there were supposed to be twelve tribes, and since Jacob already had ten sons (six from Leah, two from Bilhah, and two from Zilpah), Leah was worried that giving birth to another boy would make him the eleventh son.

This would mean that Rachel, Jacob's other wife, would have, at most, only one son. To avoid the possibility of Rachel being considered "less than a handmaiden," each of whom had given birth to two sons, Leah prayed not to give birth to another boy. Her prayers were granted, and she gave birth to a daughter named Dina.

Emotional Generosity That is Hard to Understand

How did these two sisters muster the strength to forbear their deepest desires? By deceiving Jacob, Rachel had no assurance that she would ever marry the love of her life. At best, she would have to share her husband. But then, in trying to avert an imbalance and emotional devastation to Rachel, Leah gave up the chance to be the mother of another one of the tribes and perhaps curry any additional favor with Jacob.

By exercising powerful restraint - for the sake of the other - both sisters teach us the lessons of altruism.

The Kindness of Strangers

Every day, the news brings tales of horror, acts of brutal violence, and the hell unleashed by Hammas and their worldwide supporters. It looks like most of the world has gone mad, seemingly unable to distinguish between the fundamental forces of good and evil. However, heroes often emerge in these stories – not just people trying to save loved ones - but bystanders who risk life and limb to help total strangers.


The concept of altruism seems to contradict the "survival of the fittest" mentality. As a result, science often tries to explain it away as a remnant of a survival tactic used by our ancestors when they lived in small groups and tribes of loosely related people. Some argue that altruism is merely ego-driven and self-serving, with kind acts being performed in the hopes of receiving something in return, such as admiration, reciprocity, or even a spot in heaven.

Pure Altruism – It's an Empathy Kind of Thing

When we move beyond living in a transactional world, where our actions are without social or self-serving benefit, and we act from motives of pure altruism, we are sourced in empathy that recognizes our larger sense of connection and interdependence. Just as our body feels pain when any part of it is suffering, the empathetic person doesn't merely tolerate or even respect others but feels personally aligned with them to the point of identifying with their suffering and needs.

The more we include "others" in our network of connection, the more extensive our sense of empathy impacts how we behave. In the world of action, pure altruism is "other-focused," but it originates from an inner sense of kinship and a desire to ease pain. Empathy is why thousands of "strangers" show up for the funerals of victims of terror in Israel. And when those of us who live in the Diaspora read these shocking and sickening accounts, empathy is what causes us to lose another piece of our collective heart.

Social scientists have identified how news of traumatic events affects people based on their level of connection to the event. The first group encompasses the actual victims and their families, followed by the bystanders. The third group includes geographically distant people with friends and family involved in the situation. Finally, some people are simply concerned about the world in general and generically wish for suffering to cease everywhere.

But we who are members of "Klal Yisroel" do not become progressively disinterested - the concept of “one body” represents the interconnectedness and shared destiny of the Jewish people that transcends geographical boundaries and proximity to events. We too wish for world peace, but know that it can only come when evil is eradicated.

The First Thanksgiving – and It Wasn't the Pilgrims

According to the Talmud, it was noted by the Rabbis that no one had praised God since the day He created the world until Leah, who named her fourth son Yehuda, from the word "hoda'ah," which means "to thank," thus emphasizing the significance of gratitude. The name Yehuda conveys a spiritual essence, and as Jews (Yehudim), we should recognize that gratitude is at the very core of our being.

The Twelve Tribes came into existence because of the selflessness of two sisters, Leah and Rachel. They were both driven by empathy and a desire to alleviate the suffering of the other. Their journey of faith, history, and purpose paved the way for us to overcome differences that can divide us and instead reunite us as one body, one heart, and one soul.

Internalize and Actualize:

- Reflect on a time when you have acted out of pure altruism. How did it feel to prioritize the needs of others without expecting anything in return?

- Reflect on instances where you have witnessed or experienced kindness from strangers. How did it impact you?

- How can practicing gratitude strengthen your spiritual growth and connection with others? How grateful were you to wake up this morning? How did you express that gratitude? And how can that enliven your day?

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