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The Power of Self-Transcendence…with Chloé Valdary

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Does sacrifice always mean struggle? Does doing something for someone without getting anything back always mean sacrifice? Are you defined by what you did 5 years ago or can we change? Listen in on this conversation to hear what Noam and Chloe have to say about sacrifice, self transcendence and the road to becoming a better society. About Chloé: Chloé Valdary is an American writer and entrepreneur whose company, Theory of Enchantment, teaches social and emotional learning in schools, as well as diversity and inclusion in companies and government agencies.

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Episode Transcript

INTRO

Anyone who knows me knows that Bill Simmons is one of my rebbes. When his canonical work, yes, I will call it that, The Book of Basketball was published in 2009, I devoured those 697 pages like a two year old seeing his first piece of cake. 

I thought I was going to learn about the ins and outs of the greatest basketball players of all time. And I did, but I did not expect to learn about “the secret” from Bill. 

What’s the secret, you ask? In his years researching his book of basketball, Bill Simmons wanted to know what makes a championship team. And to learn about the “secret,” Bill spoke to the Hall of Famer, Isaiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons. 

Here’s how Bill describes it:

Detroit collapsed in consecutive springs against the ’87 Celtics and ’88 Lakers, but regrouped in ‘89 for 62 wins and swept the Lakers for their first championship, vindicating a controversial in-season trade that shipped all star Adrian Dantley and a draft pick to Dallas for Mark Aguirre. The crucial section happens during the ’89 Finals, with Isaiah holding court with reporters and improbably offering up “the secret” of winning basketball.

Isaiah explained:

“It’s not about physical skills. Goes far beyond that. I watched the Celtics and Lakers, because those were the teams winning year in and year out. I also looked at Seattle, who won one year, and Houston, who got to the Finals one year. They both self-destructed the next year. So how come? I read Pat Riley’s book Show Time and he talks about “the disease of more.” A team wins it one year and the next year every player wants more minutes, more money, more shots. And it kills them. Our team has been up at the Championship level four years now. We could have easily self-destructed.”

But, his team didn’t. Why?

Isaiah said, “I always thought that the most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I made my teammates play.”

Bam. That’s it. It’s so simple. In team sports, especially basketball, individual skill cannot overcome collective effort and good teamwork. Bill explained that for Isiah Thomas, the secret to building a champion team is creating a culture of sacrifice and self-transcendence. The key to victory is going beyond mine and your personal needs.

The ultimate irony for sacrifice, and I believe this to be true if done right, is that when one sacrifices in relationships, one can emerge as the victor. 

This got me thinking about my own life, and my own personal sacrifices. And it got me thinking about millennials and Gen Z. How much do we all think about sacrifice in Western society? 

Do I sacrifice enough for my kids? 

Do I sacrifice enough for my parents?

Do I sacrifice enough for my wife?

Do I sacrifice enough for my friends?

Do I sacrifice enough for God?

Do I sacrifice enough for my people? 

I am not sure that I do. But, I do know that from any philosophy I’ve read and any Torah I’ve learned, in any understanding of the “moral life” is the assumption that we need to free ourselves from our particular interested point of view. And, this is called self-transcendence – when we’re able to do this. 

For many, enlightened self-interest seems like the way to go. I look after myself first and you later. Everyone knows the mantra, in an emergency, secure your mask before helping others with theirs. Yet, seeing beyond oneself and exhibiting self-transcendence is the highest stage of personal development. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ob”m said, “We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for…To love is to thank…To love is to give. Sacrifice is the choreography of love.”

While sacrifice may be the choreography of love, it is sometimes difficult to be a good dancer.  So to talk this out, I turned to my good friend Chloe Valdary. Chloe is the founder of the Theory of Enchantment, a diversity and resilience training company. And her whole program is amazing, but what’s so intriguing to me is her whole approach, that you can’t begin to approach the world beyond yourself until you first attempt to look through the eyes of others.

Why sacrifice? When should we sacrifice? Who am I willing to sacrifice for? When is sacrifice a virtue and when is sacrifice a demerit? 

Friends, I bring you Chloe Valdary.

CONVERSATION

Noam: Chloe, so excited to have you here.

Chloe: I’m so excited to be here, Noam.

Noam: This is going to be a lot of fun. Our 10 episodes cover the gamut. You chose to speak about the topic of sacrifice, and self transcendence. Without going too much into it, why did you choose this topic?

Chloe: I feel like I’ve been learning a lot about sacrifice as something that is important for self individuation, and self-actualization and ultimately self transcendence. I really wanted to live a full life, and I think that requires discernment, and it requires sacrificing certain things in order to achieve a greater purpose in life.

Noam: You said a lot of words there. Some of them, I understood, some of them, I did not. We’ll make sure to go through these terms throughout this episode. And I want to lay this on the table, you and I worked together for a year and we were able to have these incredible, what we called intellectual jam sessions. And what I’m excited about in today’s commerce conversation is to kind of have that conversation with everyone listening in on it, because the topic of sacrifice and self-transcendence for me, just like for you, and maybe we have different reasons is probably the most important topic as a human being. And we’ll get to that. We’ll get to that. You’re the founder of the Theory of Enchantment. What is the Theory of Enchantment? How does the Theory of Enchantment address the question of sacrifice and self-transcendence?

Chloe: So Theory of Enchantment is a anti-racism program. And broadly speaking, we basically teach people how to love themselves, so they’re less likely to take the things that they don’t about themselves and project it onto others, which is the foundation of racism, and supremacy. And the way that sacrifice plays a role, I think, in that process is number one, first of all, engaging in a practice where you start to become aware of the different idiosyncrasies that you have, different habits that you have, the different impulses that you have, and then properly attend to those. And this is actually how I fundamentally think of sacrifice. I think sacrifice is really about what we pay attention to, how we attend to different things in our lives, and choosing to attend to certain elements of our lives over others is itself an act of sacrifice.

So for example, if I know, and I do know, that if I stay on Twitter for way too long, I’m going to be sucked into a vortex where I’m going to start seeing people as other, and get looped into us versus them mentality. It’s just my nature. So I sacrificed by saying, “I’m only going to allow myself to be on Twitter every two weeks. And during those two weeks, I’m only going to allow myself to be on Twitter within a certain timeframe.” So that’s an example of sacrificing where I put my attention towards, because I know that if I don’t make that discernment, I’m just not going to feel good. I’m going to engage in unhealthy habits, and I’m just going to engage in a downward spiral.

Noam: Right. So you’ve spoken to me in the past of about the value of stoicism. You actually taught me a ton about stoicism. I started reading a lot more about, I’m not going to pronounce his name correctly, but Epictetus. And Marcus Aurelius. What were some of their ideas that really stand out to you? And do you see them as having a big imprint on how you think about sacrifice and self transcendence?

Chloe: So it’s interesting. Since the last time I spoke to you about stoicism, I’ve studied a lot of other wisdom traditions, and a lot of other practices. So I can’t honestly say that stoicism is at the forefront of what I’m thinking about these days. But stoicism is a very cool kind of psycho-technology that teaches you self-awareness, that teaches you how to recognize when you’re stuck in a certain story that you’re telling yourself about a situation that you’re in, about a relationship that you’re in, and it allows you to pull yourself out. So I’ll give you another example. I know that for me and my mom, I seek validation from my mom.

Noam: Yeah, makes sense.

Chloe: Yeah. And we don’t share the same political views. We don’t share a lot of the same political views. So any time that she expresses the political view, I disagree with, I have this tendency to feel unvalidated at it. Whereas stoicism has taught me to, first of all, recognize that that’s what’s going on when I angrily lash out at my mom for not having the same political opinions as me, what’s happening, is that I’m in this weird thing where I want my mom’s validation, and I’m defining her validation as agreeing with me, as opposed to seeing my mom as a full human being, individual human being, who’s not just my mom, but has her own thing going on, and has her own situation going on. So stoicism allows me to pull myself out of this sort of head space where I’m too dependent, too codependent on everything my mom believes in as a matter of feeling validated, and accepted and all of these things.

Noam: So yeah, stoicism, like you said, there are a lot of wisdoms out there, but to me, the idea of stoicism, basically that we have control over the things that we have control over, and to kind of hyper focus on that, and not focus on the areas of life that we don’t have control over. And I think a lot of unhappiness stems from the sense that we can control things that we actually cannot control and stoicism helps us kind of jump over that hurdle to recognize that, to be incredibly mindful of what we can control. I want to go into what I think is the opposite of where I was planning to have this conversation. The way I was planning to have the conversation was to talk to you about the virtues of sacrifice, and then go into the traves of sacrifice. But what I want to do differently is I want to start with the downsides of sacrifice, and then go into the upsides of sacrifice.

So, the downside of sacrifice to me looks like this, Joseph Trumpeldor, a very famous early Zionist thinker when I say famous I mean, to those who know who Joseph Trumpeldor was. And he says the famous line that, “Ein davartov lamut be’ad artzeinu,” which means it’s good to die for our country. This is the concept that one needs to sacrifice something on behalf of something that’s more grand, more global. Bigger than you.

Chloe: Yeah, something that’s greater. Yeah.

Noam: Something that’s greater. The collective, right?

Chloe: Yeah.

Noam: And the insight that I find fascinating, it’s not my own, so I could call it fast is that human beings are the only species that kills for principle rather than for self-interest, right? That is a crazy notion, right? You know what I’m saying? When a lion is going to kill a zebra, it’s not killing a zebra because the lion deeply believes the value of… It’s not a principle thing, it’s an evolutionary thing, or something else. There is a fear, there is a fear, and this is what Yuval Noah Harari calls, “Our boys didn’t die in vain syndrome.” And what it looks like, and he tells the story. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the story-

Chloe: I haven’t.

Noam: And so listen to this, in 1915, Italy entered the First World War and the side of the Anton powers, right? And their whole goal was to liberate Trento and Trieste, I probably didn’t pronounce it correctly. So what happened, in the first battle, they lost 15,000 men, in the second battle, they lost 40,000. In the third battle, they lost 60,000. And what happened, they continued for more than two dreadful years, says Yuval Noah Harari until the 11th engagement. And then what happened? Finally, they were totally defeated. The glorious adventure became a blood bath by the end of the war, almost 700,000 Italian soldiers were killed, and more than a million were wounded. So, what happened?

What happened, which I think is crazy that I just read this, is that the politicians couldn’t go back to the parents, and the wives, or the children of the 15,000 dead Italian soldiers and tell them, “Hey, sorry, there’s been a mistake, we hope you won’t take it too hard, but Marco died.” So what they did is they sacrificed more, and more and they didn’t want their boys to die in vain, right? This is a downside to sacrifice, right? That because we sacrifice for something, we turn that thing into a good. You hear what I’m saying?

Chloe: Yeah. I do hear what you’re saying. I think that here we may have two different definitions of sacrifice.

Noam: Okay. Let’s hear it.

Chloe: So again, to go back to this idea of attention, and this is not my original thought, this comes from a conversation with John Vervaeke, who’s a cognitive scientist that I really love and admire, but this idea of sacrifice as attention, and what are you attending to, and are you properly attending to it? So the situation that you just described, I would say that that’s a failure to properly attend to something in a healthy and deliberate way. And so, is it a sacrifice in the traditional sense of the word? Yes, absolutely. But it’s not a sacrifice, and what I think is the deeper sense of the word. And it’s not the proper sacrifice, right? It’s like Cain offering up the wrong sacrifice and Abel offering up the appropriate sacrifice, and God being pleased with who one and not the other. So, I think there’s something there that maybe we can riff on, but that’s what I would offer.

Noam: I do want to riff off of that because that sacrifice and Cain and Abel story is another fascinating story. That’s fascinating for a totally different reason, from my perspective. The reason that that is incredibly fascinating is that Moshe Halbertal speaks about this, and he notes that the pain that goes along with sacrifice when you are giving up of something, when you are sacrificing something, and there’s a rejection of the thing that you are giving. So let’s take the example of your mother and you. When your mother is trying to give you right, and you, Chloe, are not accepting it, there’s a bigger pain that results from the rejection of a gift, than exclusion, right?

Chloe: Yes.

Noam: Rejection of a gift is such a painful feeling.

Chloe: Yes. But then, I would say to bring back stoicism, in that particular situation again, how do we properly attend to that which just happened, right? And if my identity, let’s say, I try to give my mom something, because it’s hard for me to do it in the reverse way, so let me do it from my perspective. If I try to give my mom something and she rejects it, and I’ve had this experience, not in a material sense, but if I try to offer my mom an idea, for example, and she rejects it, it can be very painful. It is very painful. However, what does God tell Cain after he gives the sacrifice and his countenance falls? He tells Cain essentially to observe himself, assess himself. And if he does good, he will be rewarded. And if not evil lies at the door, right? So in that situation,

Noam: Are you going East of Eden on me right now?

Chloe: A little, yeah. And a little bit of Kohelet [Ecclesiasties], but that’s too far in the weeds. But the proper thing for me to do in that moment is to properly attend to like my instincts and my impulses, and to figure out why I’m triggered. Like, why is my ego triggered in that moment? And work on that, right? Again, because my mom is her own self and I’m my own self. And so, to become counter dependent, or codependent on her is to make the wrong kind of sacrifice.

Noam: Okay. So let’s talk about the right kind of sacrifice, then. Could you share a personal story about a time that either someone sacrificed for you, or that you sacrificed or someone else, that really impacted you and your relationship?

Chloe: I’m smiling because this thing that just came to me, and it’s a little embarrassing to talk about it. Or not, embarrassing-

Noam: Listen. Millions are listening, so that’s all good. Don’t worry about it.

Chloe: Yes. I was in a relationship with a guy, and it didn’t work out for a whole host of reasons. And he expressed to me in the end, actually initially in the end, we wanted to be friends. We said that we would always be friends and I really looked forward to that. I really looked forward to being friends. But a year passed, and we didn’t speak to each other, and then I reached out and he essentially said he couldn’t be friends. And the clingy part of me, the clingy, impulsive, reckless part of me would have responded by pestering this man until he basically blocked me on texting or whatever. Whereas, the part of me who discerns that aspect of sacrifice as an important piece of sacrifice, essentially, basically sacrifices the need to possess, and the need to want to control this guy’s actions. And instead of falling into that habit, or acting on that habit, acting on that impulse, essentially says, “Okay, if that’s what you want, then it is more important for him as an individual to be free. It important for me as an individual to be free then for me to be possessive, and for me to sort of want to control the situation.”

And so I actually think this also bleeds into a conversation about love, and what is true love. True love, ultimately sets free. And I think that if you’re properly applying your attention to a situation, then ultimately, everyone involved is going to be set free by your decisions and by your actions.

Noam: Well, to love requires sacrifice.

Chloe: Right, exactly.

Noam: Meaning, the true demonstration of love is sacrifice. I think that we could spend really five hours speaking about the Binding of Isaac. But I think one of the reasons that my understanding of the binding of Isaac, about Akeidat Yitzchak, and yes, Isaac was the victim in this scenario that we always forget were really by the way the ram is the victim. But yes, but the reason that God is requesting of this sacrifice from Abraham is because of the fact that he needs to be shown sacrifice, and to give up something that Abraham in return is getting nothing. There is no transaction taking place here. Abraham gets nothing. And this is what is referred to as God as the rich spouse syndrome, where the spouse never knows if he or she is ever totally loved, because they don’t know if there is something that their spouse is getting in return, right? And so you have to give up something that is not transactional. It’s not utilitarian. I get nothing in return. And in many ways, and whatever people’s issues are with the binding of Isaac, from a religious perspective, from a personal perspective, I love that idea. And I’ll tell you why I love that idea. There is a movie, have you ever seen the Minority Report or are you too young for that?

Chloe: I have not seen it. I know it’s a movie. I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t seen it.

Noam: Okay. There’s a scene in it that just gets me every time. I don’t know why I watch it all the time, but I guess I think about the question of self-interest versus self transcendence all the time. And there’s a moment in which there’s really creepy lady is surrounded by lots of plants and this flower that… She treats all of these plants, but the flower latches onto her arm. It latches onto her arm. And these are plants that she treats, and she’s talking to Tom Cruise and she says the following quote,

It’s funny how all living organisms are alike. When the chips are down, when the pressure is on, every creature on the face of the Earth is interested in one thing, and one thing only. Its own survival.

Noam: Meaning, to be human, no, to be an organism is to self preserve, to go beyond that is what’s called self-transcendence. Meaning, you’re not getting anything in return for something; that is the ultimate act of morality. The ultimate act of morality, the ultimate act of demonstrating love would be to sacrifice, to self-transcend and not to get anything in return.

Chloe: Well, I would argue that this is what puts human beings at the top of the hierarchy of the food chain.

Noam: What do you mean?

Chloe: Because human beings are capable of self-transcendence, which is to say self-sacrifice in a way that I think other animals, et cetera, are not capable of. And I’m a huge fan of Carl Jung. The Theory of Enchantment has been deeply affected and impacted by Carl Jung. There’s a lot of overlap between Carl Jung and Kabbalah. Some say he actually studied Kabbalah. So he talks often about how individuation requires that.

Noam: What is individuation? You keep on saying that word? What does that word mean?

Chloe: Individuation is the process by which you become a full, whole human being, not just in the material sense, but in the psychological sense. So for example, to go back to my examples, my mom, me not being dependent upon my mom’s approval validation, et cetera, and how I see myself, and how I come to understand myself. And it’s only when you become a full, free individual that you can actually become interdependent with other human beings. Where you’re independent, but you’re still cooperating, you can actually enter into harmony and fellowship with other human beings, but it’s not possible if your own identity is actually dependent upon on other human beings, or dependent upon your own base instincts, and base impulses in an unconscious way. So Carl Jung would say that you have to learn how to sacrifice the thing that is the most important to you. So, I think the Akeidah [Sacrifice of Isaac] would be an example of that, but the thing that is the most important to you. You have to be able and willing to sacrifice that, and that’s actually what designates you, or shows you to be a free human being.

Noam: Okay. Here, so I want to give some examples of what we’re talking about here. So from a religious perspective, let me start. From a religious perspective, one example might be the following and giving a Jewish perspective, okay? Shabbat, the day of rest. There are two different ways that one could possibly love Shabbat, right? And what I’m saying is pretty challenging, but I think this is where self-transcendence and sacrifice really comes in. The first way is to ask the question, “What does religion offer for me?” And that is to say, “Okay, what Shabbat can give me is beautiful time with my family. It can give me the ability to sing songs. I could have delicious food and drink, and because Shabbat gives me this, right? It gives it to me, I will continue to observe it.”

The way to approach Shabbat is to not ask, “What does religion offer to me?” But, “What am I obligated to offer for the sake of religion?” Which is to say that when observing Shabbat is not easy, that moment in which one transcends and says, “I’m not getting anything in return for it. I’m not instrumentalizing in this.” That is a powerful moment of, I think, religious growth. That’s my religious example.

My personal example that I’d want to throw out here in, let’s say husband-wife, relationship, and where a husband is thinking, “Okay, I’m going to get my wife these flowers, because she’s mad at me, and I therefore want to make her happy with me.” And I don’t mean to sound too personal, right? “And I’m going to give her these flowers in order for her to not be mad at me,” as opposed to doing the following, which is to pick up a random Wednesday, and say, “I’m going to miss an hour of work that I need to be at,” transcending myself,” and I’m going to go pick up those flowers, and I’m going to give them to her, and I’m not expecting anything in return. I’m okay with her still being, let’s say, frustrated with me about A, B and C.” That is a very difficult thing to do, but I think it is the pinnacle of what it means to be a human.

Chloe: And would you say you’ve gotten there?

Noam: No, absolutely not. I think that, no. I really don’t, but I think that this is the hardest thing to achieve. I think in moments I get there. In moments, I get there, you know? So I’ll give you an example for me in a moment where I get there: prayer. Prayer is incredibly difficult for me. Incredibly difficult, oh my gosh. It’s so difficult. It’s not something every morning I look forward to doing, but those moments in which I’m really not in the mood to do this, and I’m not asking God for anything in return, I’m merely speaking to God, and discharging my obligation, the way I see it to pray to God, and to have this relationship to God, allows me to see beyond myself. and when I’m able to see beyond myself, it’s really powerful. It’s a really powerful thing to do. Do you have any examples like this, that stand out?

Chloe: Yeah. So I meditate every day in the morning and I do experience meditation as a form of prayer. And sometimes I don’t feel like doing it. I will say it’s hard for me to though, because I do get something out of meditation. I wouldn’t describe it as purely transactional. I don’t think getting something out of something is necessarily transactional, right?

Noam: Isn’t that exactly what it is?

Chloe: I don’t think so. Because it’s not as if I’m extracting resources from, you know-

Noam: It’s not parasitic, that I agree with.

Chloe: It’s not parasitic, but it does contribute to my wellbeing. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, or negative about that, or something to be avoided. But I will say that sometimes I don’t feel like doing it, but still understanding that it does set my day up, so that I’m seeing the world in a much more spiritual way, and in a much more healthy way. And I think it’s important that that is what I get out of the experience. So even when I don’t feel like it, even when I’m too tired or groggy, I like, even the struggle of having to overcome that feeling and actually do it.

Noam: Well. That’s big. That’s really big.

Chloe: Yeah. That’s part of the process of sacrifice is the struggle.

Noam: I agree.

Chloe: Yeah.

Noam: I agree. So, I think the struggle has to be there or there is no sacrifice.

Chloe: Yeah.

Noam: See, I don’t believe that just because something is incredibly difficult, and incredibly uncommon, it therefore means that we ought not to pursue it, right?

Chloe: Of course, yeah.

Noam: Like, yeah, I’m preaching right now. I hear myself, I’m preaching, I’m preaching the value of sacrifice. I’m preaching the value of self-transcendence. And I’m also saying that it is incredibly difficult for me, and I rarely get there, but I also know that I’ll give you a great example, do you have any friends, Chloe?

Chloe: I do. Yes.

Noam: Yes. Okay. I have some friends also. And the way I view friendship is like this: there’s multiple tiers, maybe a third tier second tier or first tier. But within the closest tier, what I’m looking for, and what I’m as a friend, and what I’m hoping my inner circle wants from me as well is the following.

Chloe: Okay, let’s hear it.

Noam: That I am here for you, Chloe. I’m here for, Noam, in a way that even if I get nothing in return for being there for you, and as a matter of fact, it could even hurt me to be there for you, I’m going to transcend myself preservation, and ensure that you have what you need. That to me, that’s the pinnacle. I’m not expecting 50 people to be like that, but the inner circle, that sacrifice, that self transcendence is what it means to have the most loving relationship. And I’m lucky I have a few friends like that. I’m lucky, I do.

Chloe: So number one, in the Christian wisdom tradition that would be considered agape love. So agape love, which was also used in Civil Rights Movement. It was a central piece of the Civil Rights Movement. Agape love, it’s a selfless kind of love that transforms a being who is not fully a being, into an individual being. So it’s like this idea of the concept of raising someone, right? Literally, the physical act of raising someone, brings to mind a sapling, which becomes an oak tree, right? So you start off as a seed, and agape love is the kind of love that when applied, actually raise the seed into the fullness of a tree. And in Theory of Enchantment, we teach how to practice agape love with regards to the self, and also with regards to other beings. And agape love was what inspired Dr. King and many of the civil rights leaders during Jim Crow, and when protesting segregation, to say to the people who are racist to say, essentially, “I hate the thing that you’re doing, but I don’t hate you. You’re essentially acting out what is fundamentally a kind of immature, kind of childishness being affected by the pathology of race, but by being in a certain way, and by embodying this kind of selfless agape love, I would protest what you’re doing, while simultaneously trying my best to love you as someone created in the image of the Divine.

Noam: Wow.

Chloe: Right? So what you’ve described has deep roots in our country.

Noam: I love that. I mean, I’m going to get a t-shirt that says, “Agape love,” you know what I’m saying? I’m all about agape love. For the right people, and I think that we’re all looking for that and same thing, I think with our religion, that’s the way I view it as well. I don’t know where that situates itself exactly within the Jewish tradition. I have to think about that, but I guess the binding of Isaac is that ultimate revelatory story that we have that maybe shows that. I don’t know if it does, but maybe it does.

Chloe: I don’t know. I would have to think about it. I contemplate that story. I still don’t fully grasp the meaning of that story.

Noam: I think it’s the greatest story of all time. I think it’s the most remarkable story of all time. And I just want to tell you one idea from this story that I find to be remarkable. There was a rabbi, his name is the Kotzker Rebbe, have you heard of him?

Chloe: Mm-mm (negative).

Noam: Oh, okay. So now the Kotzker Rebbe is this game set match. This guy was something else. Early 19th century, and he has an idea of the binding of Isaac, which I view as the most earth shattering idea I’ve ever heard about the binding of Isaac. The Kotzker Rebbe explains that the binding of Isaac was much easier for him than taking Isaac off of the altar. And it was more painful for Abraham to release Isaac, than it was to bind him. And the test was his willingness not to kill Isaac, as opposed to killing Isaac. What the Kotzker Rebbe explains and is cited by Rabbi Norman lamb, he explains the following.

“It’s the nature of man, once he has taken a clear position in life, especially if he has suffered for it, right?” Like the dying and vain example I gave from Yuval Noah Harari. So he says, “If someone has suffered for it, not to retreat from it, but to mold the future along the doctrines of the past, in order to vindicate his past. And as part of our normal psychology, what we have invested in time and energy, loyalty and commitment, prestige reputation, in a certain approach, we do not want to change. We cannot change, lest we thereby declare that our entire past has been invalid and inauthentic.”

It’s a mind blowing idea. What the Kotzker Rebbe is saying is that once we commit ourselves to an idea, that becomes our own sort of religion. And the willingness to 20 years from now, I love when I meet 55 year old, 75 year olds who actually think differently than what they did three years ago, I find them to be remarkable.

That’s why maybe the concept of baal teshuvas; someone who is in Judaism, someone who chooses to say, “I’m 45 years old right now. I choose to live incredibly differently than the way I did when I was younger.” I find that to be a remarkable decision. A remarkable decision. You’ve committed yourself. You’ve committed your whole family, a certain way of living, and then you say, “No, no, no. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to retreat from that.” That is a remarkable idea to me. Have you ever heard of that?

Chloe: Well, I’ve certainly heard of baal teshuvas, if that’s what you-

Noam: Yeah. No, but have you heard of this idea? This idea that it was the removal?

Chloe: I haven’t heard of that. That is a really profound idea. That is a really profound idea. Yeah, I’ll say that. And there’s many implications on a personal level, on a societal level, on a national-

Noam: I want to hear the personal level. What’s an example of an implication?

Chloe: Oh. So you know the piece that I wrote in 2014 Angry Letter to SJP From an Angry Black Woman in Tablet Magazine?

Noam: Yeah. How can I forget?

Chloe: So, I don’t regret writing it, but I would never write it today. I would never write it today.

Noam: So, what do you mean by that?

Chloe: That letter was such a political, hyperbolic, I would argue, passionate, nothing wrong with passion.

Noam: Nothing wrong with passion.

Chloe: Nothing wrong with passion, but superficial, ultimately letter. And superficial, not in the sense that it was wrong, but it wasn’t interested in sort of the nuances of human psychology, right? It wasn’t interested in the insecurities that often drive us. So, I’ll give you an example; in 2014, when I was in Boston, the Gaza War was going on, and there were protesting happening. And every time I would see a Palestinian flag at a protest, I would be triggered.

Now, let me explain to you what that means, because some people use this term willy nilly, and I don’t know what they mean when they use it. But what I mean is that my ego was triggered. And when my ego was triggered, basically what that means is there are something within a person or within the group that they’re doing, that they’re embodying that I can’t stand, which is ultimately within myself, right? And so when my ego’s triggered, that means I begin to enter into a superiority complex, or a superiority mindset where I start to see myself as better than them. Right? Which is different from me saying, “I have a problem with what you’re saying. I have a problem with what you’re doing.” Once I enter the realm of my ego’s triggered and I see myself as better than you, I’m actually out acting out of insecurity, unconsciously.

When I wrote that piece, my ego was triggered, for sure, 100%. And in my opinion, it doesn’t matter that what I said may have been true on a superficial level. On a deeper level, there was some truth that was missing, because I wasn’t honest about where I was in my feelings, and my superiority complex, and how I saw these people, regardless of what they were doing, whether or not it was good or bad, how I saw these people who are also made in the image of the Divine, right? As fundamentally less than me, because they were doing what they were doing. So that’s why I wouldn’t write that piece today. Although, I’m very grateful for that piece, because it’s a reflection of where I have been in different stages in my life, and I can look back and I can see where I was.

Noam: I got to read you an incredible tweet from a guy I will not stop quoting, Adam Grant.

Chloe: Yeah.

Noam: He says, “There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. To err is human. It becomes a problem when you choose to stay wrong.” This is the exact same idea. “To deny error is willful blindness. New information is an invitation to question old opinions, the faster you are to recognize your mistakes, the less wrong you become.” I mean, wow. I mean, that’s the Kotzker. That’s Chloe Valdary saying that 2014, you might not want to use the term of regret, but you’re saying you approached that incorrectly. I think that we don’t have enough people out there, let me say positively; the more people that we could get out there to say, “I see things differently than the way I used see them. That’s going to be better for the world.”

Noam: Now, we don’t have to be a submissive to our former ourselves. So, that’s a remarkable idea that you’re able to recognize that 2014… By the way, my own dissertation, I disagree with things that I wrote, and it’s only four years later, five years later, whatever. And I disagree with some things that I wrote and I’m like, “You know, I see things a little bit differently now.” And I think that that’s the challenge for so many of us.

Chloe: But can I tell you why I think it’s a challenge? I have a whole thing on this.

Noam: What? Tell me.

Chloe: I think it’s a challenge, I’m going to try to summarize, because we don’t understand the nature of the self, of self and the human sense. We think that the self is a fixed entity that is the same when it was born, and it’s the same when we will die, and it’s a very Rousseau-ian idea, actually. That-

Noam: I know, classic Rousseau, right?

Chloe: This idea that you can just be your true self, right? Which we hear, as opposed to the sapling, that must become the oak tree, right? The sapling is not supposed to stay the sapling. It’s supposed to become the oak tree, right? And this is something that I’ve learned over the past year and a half, really, once you learn that it is the nature of the self of the human being to be inexhaustible, right? A finite being, but which is nonetheless inexhaustible. And there’s sort of like what John Vervaeke calls the “no thing”-ness of what it means to be human, right? You’re not any one thing. This comes from the Taoism tradition as well. I have a feeling that it’s actually the origin of why one of the 10 commandments is not to have idols, because an idol is a fixed thing. It doesn’t change. It’s exhaustible, as opposed to the human being, which is inexhaustible. And I think that if we were able to conceive of ourselves in that way, it would no longer be a threat to our identity to change. We would no longer see change as a threat, but actually as an example for what it means to be deeply human.

Noam: In some ways, you’re taking the metaphorical idea of self-transcendence with the oak tree and the sapling and being literal. One’s literally transcending one’s self, and becoming something new. Right? Becoming that oak tree, which is really viewing life in a way as saying that this is not just a journey in the trite way, but this is something that you’re going to change. You were one thing once, you’re a different thing the next day, you’re a different thing. And so, we shouldn’t identify, we shouldn’t define ourselves perhaps, just because of something that we’ve done in the past 10 years ago, 15 years or whatever it is. I really love that idea, Chloe. Thank you for sharing that. Anything else you want to share with us in terms of sacrifice, and self-transcendence, anything you want to ask me? Anything that’s on your mind?

Chloe: I would ask you, what advice would you give to someone who is wanting to learn how to self-sacrifice and how to practice sacrifice on a daily basis?

Noam: For me, I would say, it’s a few things. To view yourself as part of a collective, right? I do think that’s really important. Any definition of having the human capacity for moral life involves self-transcendence to one degree or the other, right? So the first part is, how do you allow yourself that genuinely reflect and ask, “What am I doing in a daily life that’s not merely about my self-interest?” That’s number one. Look back at the end of your day and ask yourself, “What did I do today that was not about furthering my self-interest? And what did I do today? That was about furthering someone else’s self-interest?” Whatever that is, right? That’s the first thing.

The second thing I would do is, I would become a better friend. I would choose to become a better friend to one, or two, or three other people. Be that better friend. Just like I want someone to be great to me, I have to be great to that person. In relationships, I find that when people are upset about their relationships and I’m part of this, I’m speaking to myself as much as to anyone else. When I’m in a relationship and I’m upset about how the other person is treating me, it’s very often a reflection of how I’m treating that person. So if I’m able to treat that person differently, but if I’m able to control the way I behave towards that person, very often, I believe we’ll see reciprocity.

And the third idea, this is just a personal thing for me, and hopefully it’ll resonate with other people is learn, learn Torah. The amount of content in there that is, I think so much about the dangers of instrumentalizing, the relationships we see it throughout the Bible, we see it throughout religious literature. And the value of the people that choose to do things for other characters, whether it’s for God, as a character, or the land of Israel as a character or other human beings as a character, it’s a remarkable, remarkable thing.

So we’re able to those three things, I do believe that we could work on self-transcendence and sacrifice, and then to remind ourselves, perhaps as the fourth idea that it is a pursuit. It is a pursuit. It is not something just because from perhaps an evolutionary perspective, a human perspective, a psychological perspective, whatever it is that we want to say, that we have self-interest in mind, or we have group interest in mind, however we want to formulate it. Jonathan Haidt speaks about this tremendously: just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. So, pursue something that is incredibly difficult, even though it’s difficult. That’s my take.

Chloe: Yeah, beautiful. Thank you for sharing that with me.

Noam: Thanks for getting me to think about that.

Chloe: Yeah.

Noam: Chloe, you are one of my favorite people I was going to say in the podcast, but I really mean in the world. I love having conversations with you. I love learning with you. And I’m just excited to make sure that the Theory of Enchantment gets out there more and more, so that you can really help individuals and societies become the best versions of themselves, which is something that we all deeply, deeply need in order to become a more compassionate society, a more empathic society, a more loving society, and a society that hopefully ensures that we transcend beyond our individual self needs, and we do just better for each other. That’s my hope, and I think that with your work at Theory of Enchantment, it becomes possible. So thanks, Chloe.

Chloe: Oh, thank you, Noam. And I just want to let you know that I miss you, and I love you, and I’m so happy that we’re able to speak. I hope that even offline, we continue to be in fellowship with each other. That really matters to me.

Noam: Absolutely. Thanks, Chloe.

OUTRO

For almost a decade, I taught the Binding of Isaac to a group of inquisitive and curious high school students. 

There was something so personal and resonant about this story for my students. It is a story that struck such a personal chord. 

From speaking to Chloe, I can see why. On the one hand, the choice to engage in sacrifice, is the choice to sublimate oneself or even negate or deny ourselves in the service of something else. Whatever that thing is. It could be your country. It could be your soccer team. It could be your religion. It could be your relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend. For the teenage years, which are hyper focused on developing our own identities, there is something so disarming about learning about sacrifice and self-transcendence, and engaging in behavior that goes beyond our needs. 

Here is one thing I am sure of: “To sacrifice for” is the most necessary demonstration of love, of commitment, that one can show.

Here is something else I am pretty confident about as well. Sacrifice and self-transcendence is dangerous, and misguided self-transcendence, like in the story of Italy in the first World War or the sacrifice of extremist terrorists of any kind is lethal in a really scary way. 

Professor Aaron Koller said this: “As a society, we must allow knights of faith to ascend the mountain to be alone with God. But we must not allow them to bring Isaac along.”

So as we end this podcast, I’m walking away with this – Noam, it’s time to really follow your own advice. Because I don’t want to let this all sit in my brain, intellectually, feeling like, wow, that was a good conversation. No, I want to actually push myself, every day, to actually live this way. When I go to bed at night, reviewing the day, I want to be able to tell myself, that I’ve been focusing more on doing for others, not just for me. So that’s my charge to myself and to you all. We got this.

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