The Elusive Pursuit of Spirituality – the “I” Un-capitalized

by Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax. Fl.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, a student of the great Maggid of Mezritch, once knocked on the Maggid’s door to ask a Talmudic question that perplexed him.

“Who is it?” Asked the Maggid.

“It is I,” Reb Shneur Zalman responded.

“Come in, Zalmanu,” the Maggid said, recognizing the voice. After satisfactorily resolving R’ Shneur Zalman’s question, the Maggid unexpectedly said, “Good-bye, Zalmanu. Have a good journey.”

R’ Shneur Zalman was perplexed. Good-bye? Journey? But it was not for him to question. The Maggid had instructed him to go, so he took his Tallis and Tefillin and off he went. As he made his way along the countryside, well beyond Mezritch, he heard someone beckoning him from an isolated house.

Upon his approach, he was welcomed warmly by a group of people. “We are celebrating a Bris (Circumcision) and you are the tenth for the Minyan.” After the Bris, they invited him to stay for the meal.

But just when R’ Shneur Zalman stood up to leave, the mistress of the house suddenly announced that a silver spoon was missing. All eyes turned to the stranger.

The master of the house approached R’ Shneur Zalman. “Look,” he said, “We are grateful to you for completing the Minyan, and if you wish, we will give you some alms, but stealing silver is not acceptable. Please return the spoon.”

“But I did not take any spoon,” R’ Shneur Zalman protested.

“All our friends here are honest people,” the master said. “It could not be anyone other than you. . . Give it back!”

“It was not I!” R’ Shneur Zalman again protested.

“You are a liar as well as a thief,” the master declared. “Give it back.”

“It’s not I,” insisted R’ Shneur Zalman.

“Yes, it’s you; it’s you!” the master persisted. The scenario repeated itself for some time: “It’s not I…” “It is you…”“It’s not I…” “It is you…” before long the group gathered around him. They shouted and beat him, while he vainly protested: “Not I… not I.” Finally the maid, unable to watch an innocent man being beaten, confessed that she had stolen the silver spoon. R’ Shneur Zalman was at last sent on his way with heartfelt apologies.

“Obviously, the Maggid sent me away because I deserved a punishment,” reflected R’ Shneur Zalman, “Now that I have collected what was due me, I may return.” With that he directed his steps back towards Mezritch.

“Nu, Zalmanu,” said the Maggid, waiting for him at the door, “You see how many times you had to shout ‘Not I.’”

“When you knocked on my door and I asked who it was,” the Maggid continued, “You answered, ‘It is I.’ Zalmanu, your statement, ‘It is I,’ was inappropriate and something which you had to undo. There is only one entity in the universe that could say ‘It is I,’ that is: ‘Anochi Hashem Elokecha, I am the Lord thy G-d’

A human being should always see himself as if standing in the presence of G-d. This should result in a total Bittul (self-effacement). Under such circumstances, there can be no ‘I.’

Just remember how many times you have to repeat, ’It is not I,’ to undo a single inappropriate self-assertion of ‘It is I.’”

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Common to our daily vernacular are the terms “Spiritual” or “Spirituality.” By secular standards these adjectives describe a sense of inspiration and stimulation that stem from an unusual or extraordinary experience; such as a picturesque sunset, or a moving operatic rendition. In reality, however, this definition is far from accurate.

Unlike their secular connotation, according to Judaism the words “Spiritual” and “Spirituality” refer to that which is neither physical, pleasurable, or in any way “Selfish.”

True spirituality is about man’s journey and attunement to Divine reality and instruction. According to this definition, the “Self,” to whatever extent it is involved, is a hindrance and contradiction to the intended objective.

“If you do His will only because it makes sense to you, say the author of Bringing Heaven Down To Earth, then what has it got to do with Him? You are doing ‘your will’. You’re back in prison. This fundamental axiom is underscored in this week’s Parsha – Shmini.

Our Parsha recounts the events of the eighth day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. The festivities reached a climax as Aharon and his sons were anointed and initiated into their holy service. However, the exuberant atmosphere was abruptly and tragically marred by the shocking death of Aharon’s two sons – Nadav and Avihu.

It is natural to be perplexed when reading this portion. The swift and stunning demise of Nadav and Avihu is after all one of the all-time Torah tragedies. Two rising stars cut down in their prime, at the height of one of history’s momentous celebrations. What did these sons of Aharon do that was so wrong? Why did they deserve to die in this tragic way?

Look Who Thinks He’s Nobody

Moved by a powerful sense of humility and worthlessness, two spiritually accomplished mystics were observed rolling on the floor while repeatedly affirming their sense of worthlessness.

The true extent of their humility was not quite known however, until, to their chagrin, an individual of far lesser spiritual status decided to join them.

With rolling eyes, the mystics were overheard whispering to each other in utter disgust: “Look who thinks he’s nobody!”

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The Torah attributes Nadav and Avihus’ tragic fall from grace to the fact that they took a foreign fire and incense and brought them into the Sanctuary before G-d: “And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, each took his censer, and put fire in them, and put incense on each, and brought before G-d a strange fire, which He had not commanded them. And a fire went out from before G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d,” (Lev. 10:1-2).

While there is considerable discussion among the commentaries as to the exact nature of their transgression, it is clear that Nadav and Avihu had no ill intent. They did not mean to rebel against the Divine authority and will. The commentaries agree that they were high-minded, spiritual men who sought to get close to G-d. Their death penalty was warranted only in light of their immense spiritual stature.

As for their error? It seems to have involved the proverbial intrusion of “selfness.” According to the commentaries, they failed to consult with Moshe or Aharon regarding their incense offering. They were led to this by virtue of their own highly charged emotions and drive towards spiritual ecstasy.

Others maintain that their transgression included having drunk wine before their sacred service, perhaps even becoming intoxicated. The evidence for this lies in the juxtaposed warning against entering the Tabernacle after drinking intoxicating beverages (10:9).

Either way, Nadav and Avihu, it appears, were guilty of having allowed their own emotions and selfness to seep into the holiest Divine endeavor at hand. They crossed the line between Divine will and self-ecstasy and intoxication. Fine as it may be, it is a line that demarks complete opposites –Divine vs. self.

A Chassid once appeared before his Rebbe in bitter complaint: “Rebbe, I am unable to serve G-d the way I would like. My wife gives me grief, my kids give me grief, I am strapped for cash – how in the world, under such circumstances, is one able to serve his Maker?!”

“Who’s to say that your Maker wants you to serve Him the way ‘you like’?” replied the Rebbe. “Perhaps the Almighty prefers that you serve Him the way ‘He likes’!”

Indeed, at every turn – every moment and every experience – no matter the level we’re at, we are presented with a fresh test – a test between doing that which G-d wants, because G-d wants, and doing that which we want. . . Or for the more complex creatures; a test between doing that which G-d wants and that which we want G-d to want, as is evident from the following aphorism related in Hayom Yom in the name of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe:

“In a reply to a yechidus (personal audience) query in the winter of 5635 (1874-75), my grandfather said to my father: The yetzer hara, (the evil impulse), is called “animal soul,” not because it is necessarily a brute animal. At times it may be a fox, the most cunning of beasts, and great wisdom is needed to perceive its machinations. At other times it may clothe itself in the garb of an earnest, straightforward, humble tzadik, possessing fine traits of character.

The animal soul manifests itself in each person according to his individual character. One person may suddenly experience a powerful longing to study Chassidus or to meditate deeply on some chassidic concept. The truth is, however, that this is nothing more than the yetzer hara’s counsel and the animal soul’s machinations to prevent him from engaging in the avoda of davening (with a Minyan) or a similar activity…”

What makes the test so real is the fact that man continuously gravitates towards that which he can relate and internalize. He will naturally seek to humanize every experience even that which is designed to elude any physical grasp and bounds.

It is the tendency for the “self” to seep into every endeavor, selfless as it is meant to be. Selfishness, or selfness, inextricably comes at the cost of spiritual purpose. Being virtuous always entails sacrificing selfness and pleasure for the higher spiritual value.

The ultimate goal of having free will is, hence, the willingness to give it up. We must do what G-d wants us to do, not because we approve or enjoy it, but because is the only way to serve Him – the only way to achieve true “spirituality.”

This of course is much easier said than done, but the goal must always be to attain a level of servitude and subjugation that negates any possibility of dong a Mitzvah for any other reason than because it is the commandment of the Divine Commander.

Through our efforts in serving G-d for His sake; in accordance with His will to the best of our ability removing our ego and self from the process, as the Mishna says: “Do not be as servants, who serve their master for the sake of reward, rather, be as servants who serve their master not for the sake of reward” (Avot 1-3) we will hasten thereby the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.

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One Comment

  • 1. Heavy Stuff wrote:

    This seems to take all the joy and fun out of Judaism. Is it not too demanding?


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