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The Disposable Self

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I am humbled by all the kindnesses and by all the truth that You have done Your servant

Genesis 32:11

A student of Torah should possess an eighth of an eighth[24] of pride… which crowns him as the husk does the kernel

Talmud, Sotah 5a

To grow and develop, the kernel requires sunlight and rain. But sunlight and rain are also the greatest threats to its survival: if the kernel were to be completely exposed to its sources of nourishment, it would be scorched by the heat of the sun and rotted by the moisture falling upon it.

Hence the husk—a hard, tough shell which encases the kernel or fruit, bearing the brunt of the sun’s rays and deflecting the drops of water falling from above. The husk shields the kernel from the sun and rain while absorbing enough energy and moisture to sustain it and fuel its growth.

Then comes the day of harvest. The grain has ripened, the fruit has matured, and is now fit to fill its function as food, fodder or seed. The husk, no longer an asset but an impediment, is broken open, peeled off, and discarded.

The Analogy

A student of Torah, says the Talmud, requires a certain degree of ego and self-regard, which serves him as the husk serves the kernel.

A person’s spiritual development is fueled by two primary nutrients: love and fear. Wherever we turn, we encounter the heat and light of the love which G-d radiates into His world, and are alternately dampened by the dread that keeps man from evil. But if we were to indiscriminately expose ourselves to these forces, we would be destroyed. Unchecked passion invariably disintegrates into a consuming lust, while unmitigated fear results in soul-corroding timidity and inertia.

Hence the ego—a hard, tough shell which encases the soul, bearing the brunt of life’s passions and deflecting its fears. Our sense of self prevents us from indiscriminately submitting to desire and insulates us from the terrors that would otherwise petrify us into inaction. The inner voice that insists “I am” resists and filters the passion and awesomeness of life, enabling the kernel within to grow and mature.

Ultimately, however, the ego is an impediment to the fulfillment of the purpose for which we were created. Ultimately, it must be discarded to reveal the selfless commitment to our Creator that is the core of our souls.

Every spiritual quest is launched by a stirring of the ego—by a selfish desire to make something of oneself, to achieve, to conquer the citadels of truth and fulfillment. In his unripe, immature stages, the seeker’s ego remains an indispensable component of his growing self, feeding him with stimuli and experience while shielding him from their excesses. But there comes a point at which the armor of self becomes a prison to be breached, freeing the supra-self of the soul to serve its Creator uninhibited by the constraints of ego.

The View From Up Close

When Jacob left his father’s home in Be’er Sheva and set out for Charan, he was a lone, penniless pauper fleeing for his life. Twenty years later, he returned a wealthy man, with a large and growing family, an army of servants and immense flocks of sheep and cattle. G-d’s promise to him—“I shall be with you, and protect you wherever you will go, and bring you back to this land”[25]—had been fulfilled in every respect.

Instead of bolstering Jacob’s ego, instead of giving him confidence in his continued success and reassuring him that Esau’s new plans against him would come to naught, all this had the very opposite effect. G-d’s blessings made him more diminished in his own eyes, less sure of himself, more fearful of his enemies. “I am humbled,” he cried to G-d, “by all the kindnesses and by all the truth that You have done Your servant.”[26]

In 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism, was arrested and charged with treason, on the basis of petitions to the Czar by opponents of Chassidism. After 53 days of imprisonment, he was exonerated of all charges and freed. The event—celebrated to this day on the 19th of Kislev—marked the decisive victory of the Chassidic movement over its foes, and the onset of a new, expanded phase in the dissemination of Chassidic teaching.

Upon his release, Rabbi Schneur Zalman dispatched a letter to all his followers warning them against any feelings of pride and superiority over their opponents as a result of their victory. He began his letter by quoting Jacob’s words, “I am humbled by all the kindnesses and by all the truth that You have done Your servant.”[27] It is natural that a show of kindness by G-d to a person should increase his self-regard; so why, asked Rabbi Schneur Zalman, did it evoke the opposite response in Jacob?

But this, explained Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is the difference between the person still ensnared in the labyrinth of self and the person who has gained a true perspective on himself and his relationship with G-d. To the self-absorbed person, a kindness from G-d is a favor to him, and proof of his own significance and worth. So the ultimate effect of the experience is a distancing of the person from G-d: a greater emphasis on himself and his own needs, and a diminished connection with the source of blessings that have been granted to him.

To the spiritually mature person, however, a kindness from G-d is, first and foremost, an act of divine love: G-d is drawing the person closer to Him. And the closer one comes to G-d, the more one realizes one’s own insignificance in the face of the divine infinity.[28]

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.

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[24]. I.e. one part in 64.

[25]. Genesis 28:15.

[26]. Ibid., 32:11.

[27]. This verse appears in the beginning of the Torah section of Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), which was the Torah reading for the Shabbat preceding the day of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s release.

[28]. Based on Torah Ohr, Megillat Esther 119c; Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, section 2.

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