Parshat Vayetze: Me and my Ego

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 realizing 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

personal developmentUntil 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 Hakodesh, 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.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Yaakov Tzemach.

Rav Dr. Yakov NagenRav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.

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