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Understanding God through Self-Exploration

As the Chasidic teaching illustrates, we often seek the guidance of religious leaders and texts to find ourselves.
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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.

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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