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!