Rediscovering the Joy of Giving – From Self-Love to Selfless Love

Aidel Cohen, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2019 / Finalists / Winning Essays


Have you ever tried to give, expecting to feel good about your kindness, and come out completely drained?

From physical to emotional to spiritual, we all give in our everyday lives. Physically, we’ve cooked meals for new mothers and helped new couples set up their apartments. Emotionally, we’ve visited lonely seniors and listened to friends going through crises. Spiritually, we’ve advised and learned with others, or provided for their mitzvah needs.

Sometimes, giving feels wonderful and worthwhile. Other times, it’s just plain difficult! Maybe the recipient didn’t express enough gratitude or wasn’t satisfied no matter how hard you tried; maybe the item you generously loaned was returned in stained condition. Giving can make you feel like a tank of gas which can reach empty, rather than a flame which doesn’t diminishes when it transfers fire to other candles. How can we become more like a flame and less like a tank of gas? How can we rediscover the joy of giving?

What We’ll Explore

To answer this question, I will first review three sources to understand the basics of giving and loving in the Torah, why these terms are synonymous, and why giving can be difficult. Next, I will examine the importance of self-care when caring for others from two angles: the view of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the view of Chassidus on how we can love ourselves and use that to springboard to love others. Finally, I will introduce a practical three-step process to bring back the joy of giving based on a quote from Hillel in Pirkei Avos.

The Basis of Giving: Chesed, Ahavas Yisroel and Some Challenges they Present

What are the basics of giving and loving in Judaism, and why do they go hand in hand?

Chassidus often compares Chesed and Gevura, the first two middos (of the seven emotional traits by which the world is run). Chesed, is often translated as lovingkindness as opposed to Gevura, severity and limitation. The Alter Rebbe (the first Rebbe of Lubavitch) explains in the Book of Tanya that all Jewish souls are rooted in one of these two middos:

“Among those who serve Hashem…there are two distinct kinds and levels, depending on the root of their souls above, in the categories of the “right”, Chesed, and the “left”, Gevurah” (1).

Chesed’s expansive ways of giving and Gevura’s disciplined ways are like the “flame” and the “gas tank”, respectively. But whether you are a “Chesed” or a “Gevura”, your individual limitations of Chesed might make it hard to give. Everyone can run out of fuel – fire or gas!

A second explanation of Chesed, from HaYom Yom, 26 Shevat, deepens these ideas:

“In the Holy Tongue, the word for love — ahavah (אהבה) — includes the Aramaic word hav (הב), which means “Give!” Loving, which springs from the midda of Chesed, is not so much receiving, as giving…making unsung sacrifices for others” (2). But unsung giving doesn’t always feel rewarding! We may not receive anything from it, even a thank-you.

The original source for loving your fellow Jew, Ahavas Yisroel, is in Parshas Kedoshim:

“Ve’ahavta Lereiacha Kamocha” – “Love your fellow as yourself” (3). The Talmudic leader Rabbi Akiva says: “[this] is the main commandment in the Torah.

If we replace the word “love” with the synonymous “give”, the idea becomes, “Give to your fellow as yourself.”

Saying this passuk is like saying “I love chocolate as I love ice cream.” If I love chocolate as much as I love ice cream, basic logic states that I must love ice cream automatically and prior to loving chocolate. The same goes for the mitzvah. If I am to love/give to my fellow, I have to love myself automatically and prior to loving and giving to others. But what if I don’t?

What about Self-Love?

This poses a bigger problem to giving, beyond having limits to the “flame” in our personalities or not being recognized for the good we do. Ahavas Yisroel seems to assume that we automatically have strong self-love and self care. How else can be a point of relativity for loving others? Let’s examine this problem from both a secular and a Jewish viewpoint to get some clarity.

A Secular Viewpoint: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

As is also mentioned in the explanation of HaYom Yom, 26 Shevat:

“Every society in the world praises the value of love…Nevertheless, too often, the secular ideal of love also puts an emphasis on being loved, or at least, on receiving reciprocation for the love one gives” (2).

Psychologist Abraham Maslow gives us an interesting perspective on both the ideas of self-care and giving to others in his Hierarchy of Needs, which are as follows:

  1. Physiological: Food, water, warmth, rest
  2. Safety: Security, stability
  3. Belongingness and Love: relationships, friends, sense of belonging
  4. Esteem: Feelings of accomplishment, self-esteem
  5. Self-Actualization: Achieving potential, beauty, individuality, goodness, truth (which may include reaching out to others)

Saul McLeod explains Maslow’s theory on the website Simply Psychology, based on Maslow’s collected works, starting with A Theory of Human Motivation, (1943).

Maslow’s theory stresses that the four basic “being needs” have to be met from Physiological on in order to accomplish the ultimate “growth” need of Self-Actualization.

“Individuals must satisfy lower level deficit needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs…[Maslow believes that] only two percent of people would reach the state of self-actualization…[which] refers to the person’s desire for self-fulfillment…[it] will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions’ (Maslow, 1943, p. 382–383). ” (4).

While Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a valuable resource for understanding and prioritizing our needs, the entire methodology is self-centered. Meeting one’s needs is not a means to an end in Maslow’s view; it is the end. The Hierarchy only includes giving as an optional part of Self-actualization. Sports or art are just as worthwhile if that’s how one decides to fulfill his “growth” needs. Furthermore, self-actualization is, according to Maslow, only attainable to “two percent of people”. If so few people will actually reach the last level of self-actualization and decide that giving is part of actualization, how will there ever be enough givers in the world? There is nothing in the Maslow’s Hierarchy that definitively suggests making room for others in your life.

What Chassidus Says About Self-Care and Loving Others

The Chassidus perspective not only fills in the gaps of this secular methodology, it gives us a full picture to rediscovering the joy of giving. We will look at five sources from the Lubavitcher Rabbeim, which show us how to go from self-love to selfless love. As a popular saying points out, “One cannot philosophize [i.e.: do good] on an empty stomach”. Self-care and self-love are a means to an end. They show us how to “eat” so that we can “philosophize”.

3 Sources on the Importance of Self-Care Before Selfless Love

Our first three sources will discuss the importance meeting our own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in order to fulfill our missions in this world, including Ahavas Yisroel. The first is related in HaYom Yom, 10 Shevat. At age eighteen, Rebbetzin Rivkah, the grandmother of the Rebbe Rayatz (sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe), got sick. The doctor told her to eat immediately in the morning. She therefore davened early, before breakfast. Her father-in-law, the Tzemach Tzedek (third Lubavitcher Rebbe), told her: ‘…Regarding mitzvos, the Torah says: “Live in them,” meaning, one should bring vitality into his performance of the mitzvos…be strong and joyful. Better to eat for the sake of davening than to daven for the sake of eating’“ (5). We see that our own self-care in both physical and emotional stamina is vital before we move on to any mitzvah, Ahavas Yisroel included.

Our second source, a letter from the Rebbe to a teacher, strengthens this point. A discouraged teacher once wrote to the Rebbe. The Rebbe responded “…the Alter Rebbe has stated most emphatically in the laws of learning and teaching Torah that a person who is engaged in teaching children should especially take care of his health since it directly affects the success of the work. I trust, therefore, that you are looking after yourself in matters of diet and rest, etc., and that you will always be in a state of cheerfulness and gladness” (6).

A teacher is one of the biggest givers of all. Shouldn’t they be selflessly focusing on their students? What does eating a good lunch or taking a work break have to do with it? However, the Rebbe, like the Tzemach Tzedek, refers to both physical and emotional care in order to be a giver: “diet, rest, cheerfulness and gladness”.

But what of spiritual self-care? Our third source covers this point. The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, was staying at the health spa in Wirtzburg, Germany. A group of chassidim, including Reb Yosef Yuzik Horowitz, came to visit for Shabbos. Reb Yosef Yuzik asked what it means to be a chassid, a “lamplighter.”

“First, you must reject the evil within yourself. Start with yourself, cleanse yourself, refine yourself, and you will see the lamp within your fellow. When a person is himself coarse, G‑d forbid, he sees coarseness; when a person is himself refined, he sees the refinement in others” (7).  According to this, we know that we must work on our spiritual self-care as well as our physical and emotional health prior to reaching out to others. By keeping this in mind, our self-care not only allows us to accomplish the Ahavas Yisroel in our service of Hashem, the self-care also becomes holy as we focus it for the good, fulfill our missions, and bring Moshiach, bimheira biyamenu, Amen!

2 Sources on How and Why We Can Care for Others

Our next two sources address the theories of how and why we can care and love for others, even if we find them very different from us or unpleasant to deal with. Firstly is the famous chapter of Tanya on Ahavas Yisroel: Lamed Beis. The Alter Rebbe explains how to achieve the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel:

“…to view one’s body with scorn and contempt and to find joy in the joy of the soul alone – is a direct and easy path toward fulfilling the mitzvah, ‘You shall love your fellow as yourself,’ with regard to every Jew, both great and small…they are all equal, they all have one father…all of Israel are called brothers…only the bodies are distinct from each other” (8). From here we see how and why we can achieve true Ahavas Yisroel — focus on the soul-unity of the Jewish people rather than outer differences. We can also relate what the Alter Rebbe says to our own self-love. If each Jew’s ability to be loved is soul-based, then we are all inherently lovable.

Our next source also explains how to equalize the way we deal with others and ourselves in order to achieve Ahavas Yisroel. In his Maamer Ahavas Yisroel, the Tzemach Tzedek describes self-love as self-exoneration and explains that we must apply this concept to our dealings with others: “[The Talmudic statement that] A person sees no flaw within himself does not mean that a person is completely unaware of his shortcomings. On the contrary, he may be aware of and comprehend the depths of his deficiency even more than another person…The meaning, then, is that…his great self-love covers all his shortcomings…let your love for [your fellow Jew] be so great that it covers his flaw…” (9). We can work on this self-love and forgive our shortcomings, as long as we don’t forget to work on them, and we can apply that forgiveness to the shortcomings of our fellow Jews.

None of these five concepts are only possible for two percent of the population, as Maslow would indicate! We see that we can all take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually so that we will be able to “lamplight”, do Chesed and love others. These quotes were not directed to the elite of the population only! The Alter Rebbe’s explanation in Perek Lamed Beis of Tanya says that the method of focusing on our souls is a “direct and easy path” to loving others! The Tzemach Tzedek refers to people with flaws, not tzaddikim, when he discusses how to have Ahavas Yisroel.

Practical Applications for Rediscovering the Joy of Giving

Now that we know we are all able to love and care for ourselves and others, how can this be accomplished on a day-to-day level?  I propose a three-step process. I have developed this based on thoughts on Hillel’s sayings in Pirkei Avos, 1:14. Hillel asks three consecutive questions: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (10). I will explain that Hillel is describing a three-step process which I have named: Self Care, Refine Your Self-Care, and Give Proactively. They can be broken down as such:

A) “If I am not for myself, who is for me?”: Self-Care: Even though a person can get a lot from family and friends, ultimately, you are the only one who can make sure that you get everything you need — all the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy, from food and rest to love and acceptance. No one else can make you eat healthily or make sure that you do not overload your schedule. As we saw from the Tzemach Tzedek’s advice about eating, the Rebbe’s letter to a teacher, and the Rashab’s response to “What is a Chassid”, self-care encompasses all three points of the triad: Physical, Emotional and Spiritual.

  • Physical – actions that nourish your body:
    • food/drink
    • rest
    • exercise
    • medical needs
  • Emotional – actions that calm the heart:
    • quiet time or time with people as needed; pleasurable sensations that involve the five senses: tastes, scents, driving or walking by a nice view or your favorite street, hot or cold showers or baths, massages
    • Vacations
    • Developing hobbies
    • Therapy
  • Spiritual – actions that achieve satisfaction in the metaphysical and existential:
    • Doing those things that give your life a sense of greater purpose.
    • Connecting to Hashem through prayer
    • Immersing oneself in Torah
    • Adding in bits of extra learning beyond what you would normally do.
    • Buying things that help you in your service of Hashem: holy books, candles, or Judaica

B) “And when I am for myself, what am I?” – Refine Your Self-Care:

  • When I am giving to myself, what am I?  How am I going about it? Is it L’shem shamayim, so that I can fulfill my mission and ultimately give to others? The thing to remember with all self-care is that it is a means to an end that of being a healthy person to do the Will of Hashem as best as we can and love our fellow-creatures.
  • Is your self-care in proper amounts? Are you eating, relaxing, or spending too much in the name of self-care?
  • Put your needs in a holy context. Nice clothing and good food can be used to beautify Shabbos. Sefarim and notebooks promote your Torah study or Cheshbonei Hanefesh (Self accounting). Hobbies can help you express kedusha, or help you to relax so that you can do more mitzvos. This achievement of self-care in the correct context brings us to our ultimate goal of the third step – being able to give proactively in order rediscover the joy of giving.

C) “And If Not Now, When?” Give Proactively: Finally, when one has mastered the correct way to provide for himself, he should apply the following active attitude towards giving to others: “If not now, when?” Like the Latin “carpe diem” – “Seize the day!” Don’t wait for tomorrow! Once you have carved out a space in your life for proper self-care, you can breathe more easily and think about how to give to others. Some practical solutions to giving to others are:

  • Know your strengths — find opportunities
    • What can you give? Finances? Time? Advice? Muscles? Meals? Use your talents – help decorate for a simcha, teach someone a skill you are interested in, play sports with kids who need extra attention.
    • Learn more about yourself and try harder, pushing your limits whenever you can.
    • Run errands for others
    • Have guests
    • Insert little bits of kindness – share recipes and advice. Give smiles, thank yous, and hugs. Hold doors. A little goes a long way!
    • Any kind of shlichus, teaching Torah, or small or large inspiration to others
  • Know your limits. It’s okay to say no – and yes!
  • Know your worth  
    • As a letter from the Rebbe explains to a sick person: “…We must be firm in our bitachon in Hashem that in time He will grant us healing for our ailments. And until that time, we still remain part of Hashem’s world and His emissaries…”  (11).

Some Final Thoughts

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidus, is known to have said: “It is worthwhile for the soul to descend into this world to live within a physical body for seventy or eighty years, just for the sake of helping another Jewish man or woman even once either materially or spiritually” (12). Having the goal to become the best givers we possibly can is therefore the most important thing we can do in our lives, to achieve our missions.

So, how can we rediscover the joy of giving? How can we go from self-care to selfless love?

Firstly, by remembering that healthy self-care is integral to giving to others. Secondly, by learning how to do this based on the teachings of the Rabbeim. Finally, by practicing giving to ourselves, refining our self-care, and proactively giving as much as we can. Then we will be in healthy mindsets and be able to bring Moshiach ever closer, “bikarov mamash”!

The most important thing to remember is to be constantly growing in our Ahavas Yisroel, to be, as the Rebbe says, “Someone who can say at the end of the day that he has advanced a small step higher than he was at the beginning of the day” (13).


    1. Tanya, Iggeres Hakodesh, Epistle 13
    2. HaYom Yom, 26 Shevat and explanation of,
    3. Vayikra 19:18 and Rashi’s commentary.
    4. Saul McLeod. 2018
    5. HaYom Yom, 10 Shvat,
    6. My Story, Vol II
    7. Yanki Tauber, “What is A Chassid”,,
    8. Tanya: Chapter 32
    9. Derech Mitzvosecha, Maamer Ahavas Yisroel
    10. Avos 1:14
    11. Igros Kodesh, Vol VIII, p. 111
    12. Igros Kodesh, Vol IX, p. 43