For His Holiness is greater than ours. His Holiness is only for the created and not for Himself because nothing was ever added to or could ever be added to the Creator through the actions He did or does. Therefore all His Desire could only be to be good to the created, but what He wants from us is not like this. As Rabbi Aqiva taught us, “your life comes first.” [Our sages] left us a hint of it when they interpret the scripture “Love your neighbor as yourself” in a negative sense, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your peers.” In terms of obligation, it is fitting for a person to place his own good first. שקדושת הבורא למעלה מקדושתנו, שקדושתו ית׳ היא רק לנבראים ולא לעצמו ית׳, שלא נתוסף ולא יתוסף שום יתרון להבורא על ידי מעשיו שעשה ועושה, וכל רצונו ית׳ רק להיטיב לנבראים, אבל מה שרוצה מאתנו אינו באופן זה, שהרי הורה לנו ר׳ עקיבא “חייך קודמים”, וגם רמזו לנו לפרש את המקרא, “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” בדרך שלילי “מאי דעלך סני, לחברך לא תעביד”, אבל בדרך חיובי ראוי לאדם להקדים את טובת עצמו,
As Rav Shimon had just said, Hashem has no needs, and therefore his Qedushah doesn’t involve separation from needs. However, Hashem did make us needy, and therefore we must have a concept of self-interest so that we get those needs met. The separation of qedushah is not separation from self-interest, but separation from those things which distract that self from its mission.
Bestowing good on the created begins with being good to oneself. That is how one has the capacity to give. And when operating from within that context, self-interest is a positive thing.
This is why, when someone is faced with a moral dilemma where he has to choose between two lives to save, one is not obligated to sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of another. The person who has the canteen in the middle of the desert doesn’t have to share the water. Rabbi Aqiva learns this from the verse “and your brother shall live with you” (Leviticus 25:36), which implies that the obligation to save another is only where he can then live “with you”.
(In an earlier blog entry, I explored how this idea would have applied in cases of the Holocaust. When Victor Frankl asserted that the Holocaust cost us our most idealistic people, that anyone who survived had to have the ability to place saving themselves and their own ahead of others, had he slipped from Jewish to Christian ethics? Was Rudolf Kasztner wrong in giving priority to getting his own friends and people in his political camp over other Jews onto his train to freedom? And I looked at R’ Tzevi Hirsch Meisels’s heart-rending words about a father whose son was one of 1,400 children placed on a train for extermination; was he permitted to risk his own life to save his son’s?)