Parshat Vayetza: Me and my Ego



Translated Yaakov Tzemach

One night along his journey to Charan, Yaakov dreamt of a ladder whose top reached the heavens and upon which divine angels climbed up and down.  The dream brought Yaakov to a spiritual realization: “And Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Indeed God is in this place –  v'anochi lo yadaati –  and I, I did not know.’”    In, “God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning,” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner uses the various commentaries to this verse as springboards to discuss different pathway to God.  Three approaches to the verse will be presented here, the first two mentioned by Rabbi Kushner.

Life without Awareness

Rashi understands the phrase “v'anochi lo yadaati” as follows: “Had I known, I  would not have slept in this sacred space.”   Rashi seeks  the simple meaning of the verse.  Yaakov was unaware of God's presence in that place. The implication of  this readings is, just as, unbeknownst to Yaakov, God was present there, God is similarly present in many other circumstances and we, too, are too often unaware.  The challenge here is to learn to recognize God's presence, and Yaakov awakening from him slumber acquires significance as a spiritual awakening.   This is the awakening Rebbe Nachman of Breslov referred to when he would say that “some tell stories to put people to sleep, but I tell stories to wake them up.”  The story of Yaakov teaches the gateway to consciousness is through connecting to the spiritual reality of the present moment. The Kotzker Rebbe explained  “And God said to Moshe: ‘Ascend the mountain, and be there,’” that it is not enough to reach the proper destination, but you must also be present there. 

The Barrier between Man and God

Rav Pinchas Horwitz, a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch, brings a different perspective to the verse we opened with.  He puts the center of focus on the word “anochi” – I.  The ”I,” the ego, can inhibit our ability to see God in our lives, prevent our that there is something greater than ourselves, a larger story of which we are only a part, that it is the Master of the Universe, and not “my strength and the might of my hand” (Devarim 8:17), that dictates reality.  The difficulty stems from a disproportionate sense of self.  Sometimes, we experience ourselves as detached from our surroundings and see ourselves as the center of the universe. To get “this place” -- the place of God’s presence, we must limit our egocentric identity.  “V’anochi lo yadaati", the “I” prevents me from seeing that there is anything beyond myself, but when I learn to minimize the space I take up in my own field of vision, then I will reveal that God is in that space.

In Moshe’s recapitulation of the revelation on Mount Sinai, he says to Bnei Yisrael: “Face to face God spoke to you on the mountain amidst fire.  I -- ‘Anochi’ -- stood between God and you" (Devarim 5:4-5).  Moshe moderated between God’s powerful revelation and the people standing at the bottom of the mountain.  The Kotzker Rebbe,  turns Moshe’s description into instruction for spiritual growth: “‘Anochi’ stands between God and you” -- self-centeredness and ego make a divide between God and us.  The overdeveloped ego worships itself.  Humility, limiting the self, and making room for the other are ways to get closer to God.

 I Did Not Know My Self

Until now, we have seen the ego as the barrier that stands between us and the recognition of God.  I would like to propose an alternative reading of the passuk.  “Yesh HaShem b’makom hazeh v’anochi lo yadaati” -- I did not know how to find God because I did not know who “Anochi” is.  Eternal recognition of God’s existence is only possible through deep connection to my own life: my inner world, my life story, my family, my unique abilities, my disappointment, the things that make me happy and the things I love most.  The key to finding meaning and Godliness in my life can only be found in my own personal space.  When I genuinely know myself, when I am tuned into myself, when I am really, truly myself I will, likewise, find my point of connection to God.  My deepest internal self-identification is my place among the entire fabric of creation.  My journey is to my self, to love my life, my children and God.  When I cannot find my self it is because there are external things blocking: the fear of “what others might say,” incomplete self-awareness, and other fears and anxieties.  It is my mission to desire a place of clarity and develop my consciousness and, in the end, I will find Him.

From here, we can suggest a reading that is quite the opposite of that of Rav Pinchas Horowitz:  “V’anohci lo yadaati” -- self-nullification is not the path to finding God, but, just the opposite, the problem could be the inability to know one’s self.  Someone who does not know his self could not possibly recognize the Godliness that lives inside him and, as Rav Kook adds, he definitely would not manage to see the Godliness in others: “And since there is no ‘I,’ there is no ‘he’ and all the more so there is no ‘you’  (Orot Hakodesht, III pg 140).   

The Ego and the  I


The interpretation of Rav Pinchas Horowitz and the explanation we suggested are not mutually exclusive, but refer to two different levels of man’s identity: the “I” and the “Self.”  The former is the true identity which we must nurture and develop, whereas the latter must be discarded.  The greatest challenge of spiritual growth is to recognize the difference between these two identities and know when to nullify the ego and when to heed our inner voice and foster it.

There is, however, an inherent danger to this idea.  Man is prone to fooling himself, to leading himself to embolden his negative traits, to giving expression to the ego when it really should be nullified.  The declaration “I am doing/not doing this because this is right for me/is my inner truth” can, instead of reflecting the deep yearnings of his soul, be an expression of impulsive desires disguised as spirituality.  Thus, the insight into the inner self freezes him in place, instead of enabling him to access the inner depths of the Self.

Paradoxically, it is specifically those who are actively engaged in a spiritual journey who are at the greatest risk.  Someone engaged in spirituality, for the most part, is highly involved in his own inner world and when he puts himself at center, he will oftentimes tend towards servicing his ego.

Some basic steps to avoid the pitfalls in the search for the I.

First, we must acknowledge that the journey to the inner I is a life-long journey.  The idea is not to sanctify my  present situation  but to delve inwards and progress slowly. Second, the order of priorities must follow the verse: “Turn away from evil and do good” (Tehillim 34:15).  The first stage is to free oneself from the undesirable identity, to cut out the ego and its base desires.  This step makes space for the second stage -- exposing, empowering and nurturing the pure inner voice.  This process follows the adage of Rav Kook: “Morality is the corridor, and sanctification is the palace”  (Sh’mona Kvatzim 1:133).   Exercising proper morality is the preparatory stage towards achieving spiritual elevation. Third, to counteract the inherent danger we mentioned previously -- how inward focus can empower the ego -- one must combine inner spiritual focus with outward practice, focused on service of the other. Finally, one must recognize the characteristics of each of the identities so that he will not confuse them.

The belief that God exists in my inner soul teaches me that there is an inherent connection to the transcendent inside me.  My connection to the source enables me to see this spark in others as well.  When I see my uniqueness in harmony with God, Torah and my fellow man, when I see that my unique branch stems from a wide trunk from which sprouts infinite other branches, then I know that I have touched on an inner truth.

On the other hand, it is the ego that creates a sense of divide between myself, the physical world and the transcendent.

When I am angry, jealous or proud, it shows me to what extent this buffer stands strong between me and the world, how much the ego still controls me.

Progress is not dependent on letting go of negative traits; rather, when these negative feelings arise, one must identify them as an expression of the ego.  The self-awareness that enables one to view these traits from an outside perspective which creates a disconnect between the person and those negative feelings.  When I contemplate my anger, I realize that I am not the anger itself.  Contemplating emotion from this detached vantage point, puts me in that place above the negative emotions, that place that I believe exists my essential identify, the play that I aspire to reach.

Love or Children?

Another leitmotif of Parshat Vayetzei is relationships.  The connection shared between Yaakov and Rochel is qualitatively different than the relationship between Yaakov and Leah.  Rochel had Yaakov’s love, whereas Leah had his children.  The tragedy of the story is that each sister wanted what the other one had -- Rochel yearned for children, while Leah longed for love: “And Rochel saw that she was not bearing children for Yaakov and Rochel became jealous of her sister [Leah], and she said to Yaakov ‘Give me children, if not I am dead’” (Bereishit 30:10).  Even when Rochel finally had a child, she did not experience validation, but instead looked towards the future, hoping for another child, as expressed through the naming: “And she called his name Yosef, saying ‘yosef HaShem li ben acher - may HaShem add for me another son’” (Bereishit 30:24).  Alas, upon bearing the additional child for whom she yearned, Rochel died: “And it was as her should soul departed, for she had died, she called his name ‘Ben-Oni - the son of my sorrow’” (Bereishit 35:18).  Leah’s story is the inverse of Rochel’s as she, too, expressed her character and yearnings through the names she bestowed upon her children:

And Leah conceived and bore a son and she called his name ”Reuven” as she said ”Since HaShem has seen my affliction and now my husband will love me” … And she conceived again and bore a son and she said ”And now, this time, my husband will accompany me because I have borne three sons” and therefore she called his name ’Levi”…. And Leah said ”God has given me a goodly portion.  Now my husband will make his home with me, for I have borne him six sons” and she called his name ”Zevulun.” (Bereishit 29:32.34; 30:20)

In the end, upon their respective deaths, each sister received that which she had yearned for all her life.  Leah was buried next to her husband, Yaakov, in Maharat Hamachpela and Rochel became the symbolic mother of Israel, as she was buried on the road to Efrat, enabling her to beg for mercy on her children as they were led out to exile centuries later (Bereishit Rabbah 82:10):

So said Hashem ”A voice is heard in Ramah, crying out and bitter weeping, Rochel weeping for her children.  She refuses to be comforted for her children for they are not.“  So said HaShem ”Refrain your voice crying and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded” said HaShem, ”and they shall return from the land of the enemy.  And there is hope in your future,“ said HaShem; ”and the children shall return to their borders.”  (Yermiyahu 31:14-16)

Self-Actualization Though Relationship

The two primary expressions that generally typify the marital relationship -- love between the couple and joint childbearing -- shed light on two sides of man and touch on the essence of the connection between man and woman.  In the first creation story, the relationship between man and woman is described as a means towards an end in the process of procreation: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land,”  (Bereishit 1:28), but in the second telling of the creation story, the intimate connection between man and woman is an end in and of itself: “It is not good for man to be alone… and he shall cleave to his wife and they will be one flesh” (Bereishit 2:18, 24).

The story of Rochel and Leah is a cautionary tale about relationships that only have one of these elements.  In light of this we can understand the bracha the community gave to Ruth and Boaz at the time of their wedding: “And HaShem shall give the woman that comes into your house like Rochel and like Leah, as the two of them built the house of Yisroel” (Ruth 4:11).  The community blesses Ruth and Boaz that their relationship should include both of these components together.  As my students once noted, Ruth merited to see the fulfillment of both of these blessings; Boaz indeed loved her and Dovid Hamelech was born from their relationship.  A relationship that has these two elements creates a oneness in which each of the two components complement and enrich each another; partnership in creating life and raising children brings the couple together in a deep way and makes them more intimately connected.  On the other hand, just as children strengthen the connection between the couple, the love also contributes to the children; there is no greater gift a couple can give their children than to raise them in a home filled with parental love and intimacy.

Relationships - A Journey to the Inner World

Rashi explains that the “one flesh” referred to in the passuk “And he shall cleave to his wife and they will be one flesh,” is the child borne from the intimate connection between man and woman.  In this generation, possibly more than ever before, the challenge of building a life of meaning is dependent on the ability to hold an intimate relationship that promotes mutual growth.  Everyone strives to create a relationship in which they experience a love which connects the couple until they are but one.  Love is the key that enables each individual to transcend him/herself.  In a relationship there is a constant yearning for a oneness.  Physical closeness is one expression of this yearning.  Bearing children and raising them together is another realization of the desire for oneness.  Even so, many couples struggle with the feeling that, emotionally, they never reach the level of closeness for which they yearn.

Hedy Schleifer, a renowned couples therapist trained in the Imago method, explains that there is a certain power-struggle, based on a misconception, that can betray even the couple’s most sincere efforts to deepen their relationship: each individual knows that “as a couple, we want to be one,” but sometimes each person thinks to him/herself that “I am that one.”  Just as the ego can interfere in the relationship between man and God, misunderstanding the meaning of the relationship can stand between the couple.  The ability to maintain a supportive, loving relationship based on mutual growth is dependent on the recognition that “as a couple, we are two.”  In order to strengthen this connection, I must accept and learn my partner’s language, to visit his/her inner world and to build our “one” from the space where our two private worlds meet.  Schleifer teaches how to create that space for those worlds to meet.  In order to make that space, each partner must contract him/herself and acknowledge the other -- the other who is not there to serve the partner’s emotional and physical needs, who is person in his/her own right, a complete other.  A couple that practices this relationship model, with no ego dividing them, can simply replicate this model in their relationship with HaShem.  When we internalize more of our surroundings, the focus is no longer just on ourselves, and not just on the divine, but on the meeting-space between the two.  Then we will merit to live a life of fullness and experience: “Indeed HaShem is in this place - and I know it!”     


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