One of the most timeless and thought provoking questions regarding religion is whether spirituality and religious study is primarily about self-knowledge or other-knowledge?
An old Chassidic teaching demonstrates the position that religion is, generally, first and foremost a search for the self:
A chassid came to visit his rebbi.
The rebbi asked the chassid: “Why have you come here?”
The chassid replied: “I have come to find God.”
The rebbi, with a twinkle in his eye, responded: “For that you didn’t have to come here, since God, Whose glory fills the entire earth, can be found everywhere in the world!”
Surprised by the rebbi’s reaction to his statement, the chassid asked: “Then why indeed do people come here to the rebbi?”
To which the rebbi answered quietly: “People come here to find themselves.”
As the Chasidic teaching illustrates, we often seek the guidance of religious leaders and texts to find ourselves. There is, of course, nothing wrong with gaining self-knowledge and growth, in fact this is beautiful, but we cannot lose sight of another important goal of religion: Other knowledge. What can we learn about the world? About God? About humanity?
Society (religion of course included) has markedly turned toward individualism. Many of the effects of this have been positive as it has increased a sense of autonomy, empowerment, and responsibility. However, a significant, and often overlooked, cost has been the loss of engagement with the Other.
One Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 14:9) demonstrates the extent to which we should be engaged with God and ideally focused:
R. Levi b. R. Hanina said: ‘For every single breath that a human being takes, he should offer praise to the Creator.’ What is the reason? Scripture says, “Let every soul (neshamah) praise God’ (Psalm 150:6)—let every breath (neshimah) praise God.
Of course many of us fall far short of this ideal. We are often too caught up in the mundane tasks and stresses of everyday life, and find it hard, if not impractical, to stop and thank God for every breath we take. However, let us now stop, for just a second, and give thanks to God, as this Midrash commands, for the gift of life and the blessings we have been given. Let us renew our search for God and begin anew our engagement and focus.
A beautiful idea in Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Maharan Essay 282) is that of judging others, finding the good in our brothers and sisters, and understanding the implications of our actions toward others:
Know! A person must judge everyone favorably. Even in the case of a complete sinner, one must search until one finds some point of good within that person. For the verse says: “With a little bit [of good], and the wicked will be no more” (Psalms 37:10). This verse refers to finding and exclusively focusing on the “little bit” of good which is found within everyone, including a complete sinner. By judging even a complete sinner favorably, one fulfills the end of this verse: “And the wicked will be no more.” Once you judge a sinner favorably you actually elevate the sinner to the side of holiness. This can help this person return to God. How is it possible that this sinner never once fulfilled a mitzvah or did something good throughout his entire life? Once a person does even one good deed, he becomes part of and attached to God, the source of all good.
Every person can sense how another person feels toward him. A person’s feelings toward another are broadcast loud and clear through verbal and non-verbal communication, intimations, body language, and gestures. Therefore, if one projects and transmits positive feelings toward another, the warmth and good attitude that one projects can be felt and can literally uplift the other person. Once a person feels uplifted and is imbued with a sense of self-worth and joy, this happy attitude could motivate a person to seek out God and return to Him. If one, however, projects negative feelings toward another, this could literally kill the other person and cause him to fall completely….
Imagine if we viewed others and interacted with others in such a fashion and how that would affect our own souls and the souls of those around us!
A Medieval rabbi used to teach that the way to understanding God is through self-understanding. There is something significant about this – a religious approach that seeks to know God and man by knowing one’s self. However, I fear that some sort of solipsism can lead to a religious narcissism that epistemically relegates God and man to the sidelines, simply written off as unknowable and ultimately as irrelevant. This fear though is, of course, not preventative in endeavoring to understand one’s self and thereby attempting to more profoundly understand and know God through self-exploration.
Carl Jung once wrote, “The telling question of a person’s life is their relationship to the infinite.” This meaningful proposition is significant in the depth and complexity of its implications. Our relationship to God and the infinite is inextricably linked to our character, behavior, guiding ethical principles, and relationships with others. Being aware of how our relationship to God affects these important aspects of our life should serve as inspiration to dedicate more time to others, self-improvement, devotion to learning, and on focusing on our relationships with others, as well as God.
The Chofetz Chaim told a remarkable story about ceding ones own desires and worries in order to selflessly serve others:
Rabbi Bunim spent his early years of life working as a traveling businessman. On one such journey, he stopped at an inn on a cold, stormy night. The Jewish innkeeper found in Rabbi Bunim a sympathetic ear for his tale of a failing business and they spoke for a while. The peasants no longer came to him, vats of liquor sat untouched in the basement and the landlord was growing impatient for the rent, the innkeeper cried.
In the middle of the night a traveler, drenched and freezing, knocked at the door and begged the innkeeper to admit him, even though he had no money with which to pay. The innkeeper obliged, gave him a change of clothing and a room for the night. The traveler, however, was still shivering. “Could you bring me some vodka, please” he asked.
The innkeeper went to the basement and poured a cup of vodka, then shook his head firmly and smashed the cup to the floor, unaware Rabbi Bunin was watching. Four times he repeated this. Finally, upon pouring the fifth cup, he happily proclaimed, “Now” and brought the vodka to his guest.
The innkeeper explained to the rabbi that he couldn’t serve the guest a drink he had poured with disappointment and resentment in his heart. He had been handed a golden mitzvah – a chance to revive a shivering hungry, poor man, yet his financial worries were clouding his ability to appreciate this gift. He tried and tried again, until true loving kindness was within him. Only then could he pour and bring the man his drink.
With this story in mind let us engross ourselves in the pursuit of understanding and loving God and others. Let us attempt to understand and serve God through self-exploration and understanding as the innkeeper did in Chofetz Chaim’s story. We must dedicate ourselves to seeing the good and holy in others and with that in mind act selflessly in their service with the joy of understanding that we are also serving God when we serve others.Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the founder & president of Uri L’Tzedek, the founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of books on Jewish ethics, most recently “The Soul of Jewish Social Justices.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”
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