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Correcting Egoism

The entire spiritual body of law is intended to help us overcome our egoism. Therefore, the spiritual law, "love thy neighbor as thyself" is a natural result of attachment with the Creator. Since there is nothing else besides Him, when a person understands this, all the creations, including our world, merge in our perception of the One Creator.

Thus it becomes clear how our forefathers were able to obey all the spiritual laws long before they were actually passed down. A consequence of spiritual elevation is found when we begin to love our worst enemies and the foes of all the nations. Thus, the greatest work can entail praying for our enemies.

When Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev was attacked for his extensive work in teaching the correct manner of serving the Creator, the rumors of this reached Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk. He exclaimed, "What is there to be surprised about! This happens constantly! If this did not occur, not a single nation could ever enslave us."

There are two stages of battle against egoistic desires: First, we pursue them. Then, we attempt to escape them, only to realize that these desires continue to pursue us.

Those of us who deny the oneness of the Creator do not yet sense that He and all that happens in the world, including all that happens to each individual, are one and the same. Rabbi Yichiel Michal (Maggid mi Zlotchiv), a Kabbalist of the last century, lived in great poverty.

His students asked him, "How can you recite the blessing to the Creator for having given you all the necessary things when you have so little?" He answered, "I can bless the Creator who gave me everything, because apparently it is poverty that I need to come closer to Him, which is why He gives it to me."

There is nothing that denies the rule of the Creator more than depression. Notably, every person arrives at this feeling for different reasons: suffering, a feeling of personal helplessness, absence of what is desired, etc. It is impossible to feel joy over the blows one receives unless one realizes their necessity and immense value; then, every blow can be taken as medicine.

A person’s only worry should be why one is worrying. "One should not consider suffering to be bad," explained Rabbi Moshe of Kovrin, "since there is nothing bad in the world, but rather that it is bitter, because medicine is always bitter."

The most earnest effort should be made to "cure" the feelings of depression, because the consequence of faith is joy, and only by increasing one’s faith can one save oneself from dejection. For this reason, when it is said in Mishna that, "A person must be grateful for the bad," the Talmud immediately adds: "And must receive it with joy," because there is no evil in the world!

Because we perceive only what actually enters our senses and not what remains outside us, we can grasp the Creator only to the degree that He acts upon us. Hence, we need our senses to deny the oneness of their source; they are specifically in order for the person to ultimately sense and reveal the oneness of the Creator.

It is said that after the crossing of the Red Sea, people believed in the Creator and began to sing. Only faith allows one to sing out. If an individual feels that through self-improvement he will be able to correct himself, he should examine his attitude towards the belief in the omnipotence and the oneness of the Creator, because only through the Creator, through prayer for change, is it possible to alter something in oneself.

It is said that the world was created for the delight of the created beings. Olam (the world) derives from the word he’elem or ha’alama – meaning “concealment.” It is by experiencing the opposing tendencies of concealment and revelation that a person experiences pleasure. And this is the meaning of the expression, "I created a help against you" ( ezerke- negdo).

Egoism was created as an aid to humankind.

Gradually, while struggling against it, each person acquires all the senses necessary to experience the spiritual. For this reason, each person should look upon all obstacles and suffering with a full consciousness of their purpose, that is, to induce one to ask for the Creator’s help in receiving redemption from that suffering. Then, egoism and other unpleasant aspects transform into "help against you" – which is actually against egoism itself.

It is also possible to offer an alternative rendition. Imagine egoism standing "opposite us," instead of the Creator, screening and covering the Creator from us, as if saying: "I stand between the Creator and you."

Thus does the "I" or "self" of a person stand between that person and the Creator. For this purpose, there is a commandment first to "remember what was done" to us by Amalek, and then to "erase all memory" of Him.

We should not search within ourselves for thoughts that serve as obstacles, but rather should take the first thing that arises in our hearts and minds from the moment of awakening, and tie it to the Creator. This is how "obstacles" help us return our thoughts to the Creator. From this, we see that the worst thing is when we forget about the Creator.

To the extent that egoism pushes us to sin, it also pushes us to be exceptionally "righteous. In both cases, it tears us away from the truth. To the same extent that we can pretend to be righteous before others, so sometimes, without realizing we are deceiving ourselves, we begin to believe that we are truly righteous.

Rabbi Jacob Yitzhak of Lyublin (Hoseh mi Lyublin) said, "I have more love for sinners who know that they are sinners, than for the righteous who know that they are righteous. But sinners who think that they are righteous will never find the right path, because even on the threshold of hell they think that they have been brought there to save others."

A true Kabbalist wants students to fear and respect the Creator more than they fear and respect their teacher. So, too, are they encouraged to depend on and trust the Creator more than they depend on and trust their teacher.

When Rabbi Nahum of Ruzhin, a Kabbalist of the last century, found his students playing checkers, he told them of the similarity between the rules of the game at hand and the rules of spirituality: first of all, you cannot make two moves simultaneously; secondly, you can move forward but not backward; thirdly, one who reaches the end can move as one likes, according to one’s desires.

If we believe that someone is talking about us, we become interested in what they are saying. That which is desired but is concealed is known as a “secret.” If we read the Bible and feel that it is talking about us, then we are considered to have begun studying the hidden wisdom of Kabbalah, where we will read about ourselves, although we are not yet aware of this.

As we progress on the spiritual path, we will realize that the Bible speaks about us, and then the Bible will transform from being concealed to being revealed. Those who read the Bible without posing questions about themselves cannot discern in the Bible either the hidden or the revealed parts; to those individuals, the Bible appears simply as a historical account or a collection of legal statutes.

For those who study Kabbalah, it is said the Bible speaks only of the present. From the point of view of egoism, there is nothing more strange and unnatural, unreal and absurd, then "selling" oneself into slavery to the Creator, to erase in oneself all thoughts and desires, and to enslave oneself to His will, whatever it may be, without knowing in advance what it is.

All spiritual demands seem equally pointless to one who is distant from the Creator.

And conversely, as soon as one experiences spiritual ascent, one agrees to that state of being without resistance or critique of reason. Then, one is no longer ashamed of one’s thoughts and aspirations directed towards committing oneself to the Creator.

These contradictory predicaments are given to us specifically to help us realize that our redemption from egoism is above nature, and is awarded only by the Will of the Creator. Until then, we exist in a state of dissatisfaction, because we either compare our present state to that of the past, or we compare our present with our hopes for the future, and thus suffer from the absence of the desired experience.

If we had only known great pleasures we could receive from Above, and were not actually receiving them, we would suffer immeasurably more. However, it can be said that in regard to spiritual pleasures, they are kept from our awareness, and we remain in a state of unconsciousness and do not perceive their absence.

Thus, it is vital for us to feel the Presence of the Creator. If we were to subsequently lose that perception, it is already clear that we would once again yearn for it. As it is said in Psalms, number 42, "As a deer pants for streams of water, so my soul cries out for You, God."

The desire to perceive the Creator is called "the aspiration to ’lift’ the Creator’s Presence from the dust," that is, from the lowest state in our understanding, when everything in our world appears to us more precious than being able to sense the Creator.

Those who keep the commandments due to their upbringing (which in itself is a manifestation of the Creator’s desire) do so in the same manner as those who aspire to grasp the Creator. The difference lies in the perception of the individual in question. This is of primary importance, since the desire of the Creator is to benefit His creations by giving them the feeling of His closeness.

Thus, in order to forsake the habitual observance of commandments and become freely acting, we must clearly understand what we received as a result of our upbringing and from society, and what we now aspire to as independent individuals.

For instance, consider someone who received an upbringing in accordance with the system of "Mussar," which teaches that our world is nothing. In such a case, the spiritual world is perceived as only slightly greater than nothing. On the other hand, Kabbalah teaches that this world, just as it is perceived, is full of pleasures. However, the spiritual world, the world of sensing the Creator, is incomparably more beautiful.

Hence, the spiritual emerges not as simply more than nothing, but as greater than all the pleasures of our world. It is impossible to force oneself to benefit the Creator in the same way as the Creator benefits us, because such inclinations are not found in human beings.

Nevertheless, we should be clear about "to whom" we must aspire. When we seek the truth behind our desire to approach the Creator, we should keep in mind that, when we sincerely desire the Creator, all other thoughts and desires disappear, just as the light of a candle is overwhelmed by the light of a torch.

Until we have perceived the Creator, each of us feels as if we were alone in the world. But since only the Creator is One and Unique, and since only He is able to give, and gives to all of the world, and as we are absolutely opposite to this characteristic of giving, immediately upon receiving the perception of the Creator we acquire, if only temporarily, these same characteristics, as explained above in the analogy of a candle in front of a torch.

By living in accordance with the laws of the spiritual world, we are able to accomplish everything that we need to while still in this world.

When we believe that everything, even the bad that we experience, was sent by the Creator, we remain continuously attached to Him.

There is the Creator and the creation – the human being that is not able to perceive the Creator but can only "believe" in His existence and oneness, and in the fact that only the Creator exists and holds the domain over everything (the word "believe" is placed in quotation marks because, in the Kabbalistic sense, faith refers to one’s perception of the Creator).

The only thing that one desires is to receive pleasure. Such was the design of the Creator. Such was also the aim of the creation, the will of the Creator. However, one should experience pleasure in the same manner as the Creator. Everything that has ever happened, is happening, or will happen to each of us, everything both good and bad, is predestined and sent to us by the Creator.

At the end of the correction, it will become perfectly clear that all that happened was necessary for our benefit. But while each of us is on the path of rectification, to each of us this path appears to span many thousands of years, to be extremely long, bitter, bloody, and extraordinarily painful. No matter how prepared we may be for the next blow, as soon as we perceive a trial approaching, we forget that it comes from that Singular Power in the world from which everything derives.

We forget that we are merely instruments in the hands of the Creator, and begin to imagine ourselves to be independently acting units. Consequently, we believe that unpleasant circumstances are caused by other humans, rather than recognizing them as instruments of the Creator’s Will.

Thus, the most important concept we need to understand should go beyond mere acceptance that everything comes from the Creator. It should also focus on the idea that we must not succumb to harmful feelings and thoughts during our most difficult moments.

Nor should we suddenly begin to think "independently" and fall into believing that the events in our lives at that moment are in any way caused by other human beings, rather than by the Creator; nor should we even consider that the outcome of any phenomenon is determined by other people or circumstances, rather than by the Creator.

It is possible to learn this through our own experiences alone, but while we are learning we tend to forget why events in our lives occur. Everything that happens in our lives is in order to develop and prompt our spiritual growth. If we forget this, we may fall into a false belief that there is a lack of Divine Supervision and a complete concealment of the Creator.

This process occurs in the following manner: the Creator gives us the knowledge that only He, the Creator, rules the world, and then He places us amidst frightening and unfortunate events that bring about various disagreeable consequences. The disagreeable feelings grip us so strongly, we forget from Whom they were sent, and for what purpose these harsh blows are delivered.

From time to time during the course of this "experiment," we are given the understanding of why this is happening to us, but when these dreadful occurrences increase, our understanding disappears. Even when we suddenly "remember" Who sends us such sufferings and why they are sent, we are incapable of convincing ourselves to attribute them to the Creator, and appeal to Him for help.

Rather, at the same time we realize that everything originates from the Creator, we still attempt to help ourselves. We can visualize this process in the following manner:

  1. On our path to the Creator stands an impure, distracting force or thought, which compels us to break through it in order to cling to the Creator;

  2. When we are close to the Creator, we are like a child held by our mother, but the extraneous thoughts/forces try to tear us away from the Creator to keep us from sensing Him and feeling His rule;

  3. It is as if the Creator bestows on us something important to guard us from our enemy. Then, the enemy attacks and we valiantly struggle against that enemy.

  4. When the struggle is over, it becomes very clear that we were merely struggling against obstacles sent by the Creator in order to attain understanding and elevation.

In the end, we acquire knowledge about ourselves and about the Creator’s Divine management, as well as cultivate love for the Creator, finally understanding why He sent us all the obstacles.

Our upbringing should not be one that forced or suppressed us, but rather should help us develop the skills necessary to form a critical perspective on our own internal states and desires. Proper upbringing should include instructions on how to develop the skills to think and analyze, while traditional upbringing, on the contrary, usually attempts to instill in us automatic actions and reactions that we can draw upon in the future.

In fact, the entire goal of upbringing should center on establishing a habitual practice to constantly and independently analyze and appraise our independent actions. These are actions freely chosen, and not those into which we have been coerced by an outside force, nor influenced by our upbringing.

How can we reach the truth when the ego perceives trust as bitterness or pain? Who is prepared to undergo such an ordeal willingly?

We receive vitality and energy from passion, honor, and envy.

For example, if we are dressed in shabby clothing, we are ashamed because others are better dressed. But if others are also dressed poorly, then we are left with only half of the unpleasant feeling. For this reason, it is said that "a shared misfortune is half the consolation."

If we receive pleasure only from one of these three sources, we could never advance in our spiritual development. For example, if we possessed only the drive for pleasure but not for honor, we would walk naked in hot weather because we would feel no shame. The yearning for honor and for high standing in society can decrease if people moderate their needs, as they do during significant ordeals or wars.

But in the desire to receive pleasure or to decrease one’s suffering, we have little dependence on the opinions of others, just as one’s toothache does not lessen because someone else also experiences a similar pain. Thus, the work "for the sake of the Creator" should be based on pleasure, not honor; otherwise, one can become content and stop in the middle of the way.

It is said that "the envy of the scholars increases wisdom." Even if one has no desire for honor, one will still wonder why someone else is honored, rather than oneself. For this reason, people devote great efforts to science to ensure that others will not receive greater honors than they do.

Such efforts do expand knowledge, and a similar pattern can be observed among new students. One sees that others rise before sunrise to study, so one forces oneself to also rise early, even if deep down there is a strong desire not to do so.

But if we realize that every thought is truly not our own but actually comes from the outside, then it becomes easier to withstand these thoughts. Society affects people in such a way that they accept all thoughts and desires impressed upon them by others as their own. Thus, it is crucial that we choose an appropriate environment for ourselves that will be characterized by proper goals and aspirations.

If, however, we wish to be influenced by and to receive thoughts from a particular circle of people, the surest method to achieve this goal is to place ourselves among them; moreover, to serve and assist them, since the process of receiving takes place from the higher one to the lower one. Thus, in a study group, it is crucial to perceive everyone else as more knowledgeable than oneself.

This is known as “acquiring from the authors,” because this is gained through communication with others. Moreover, when we are among others at work and at home, it is desirable that we mentally remain on the level of our peers. This will ensure that no extraneous thoughts should enter us unwittingly, thus causing us to reason in the manner of our neighbors, spouse, or colleagues.

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