Atoning … and trying again …

Every word you overhear, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, is in fact spoken for your ears alone.
–baal shem tov
My wife, Cherie, and I were to talk on Monday afternoon about my desire to be more structured about my private Jewish studies, in preparation for eventually going back to school to get an advanced degree in some form of Jewish studies. All of Monday morning I thought about how and what to say to try to finally get her to understand where my head and heart were. I knew I wouldn’t get her to hear me if I came from a place of anger, I needed to come from a place of compassion, and I remembered a concept discussed by Lawrence Kushner that I thought might help me explain what I wanted her to hear. Because all of my books were at home, I began searching the internet for it.
Instead, I ran across an interview with Kushner entitled: “Being a Joyful Servant.” And as I skimmed the article, about how to grow in humility so that one might be more likely to sense the wonder of being one with G-d, I read this text:

First, one must learn what it means to be a joyful servant. Start by serving the people you live with, help them, learn how to tend to their needs, even before they can express them. . . . Each day is filled with a myriad of opportunities for secret observance, and each one of them is an opportunity for humility, an opportunity to be a joyful servant.

And THE TRUTH hit me like a ton of bricks —- nearly a year ago, a rabbi suggested, because my oldest son was struggling emotionally and behaviorally, that I quit spending so much time volunteering and, instead, go home and take care of my family. And I did that. I quit volunteering and I went home.
But I didn’t go joyfully. I didn’t serve my family like it was a mission from G-d. I went home bitter and resentful, because they had interrupted my ability to do what I had decided was “G-d’s work” for me at the synagogue.
The tasks that I completed at the synagogue … they were work that G-d needed done … but it wasn’t the work that G-d needed me to be doing.
Over the last year, I’ve come to understand how helping Zachy is G-d’s work for me, because he needs me to help him find balance … just like I need to learn to find balance for myself …
And I’ve come to understand how teaching Evan to protect, but still cultivate and live from, his sweet, happy soul is an assignment for me from G-d …
But I never stopped and stepped back from my own resentment about needing to be at home for long enough to look at Cherie as I should have. I tried, but I was too full of bitterness and fear and anger to be able to fully appreciate her. I didn’t see her as my mission from G-d … I didn’t serve her joyfully, with respect and humility …
Words from Lawrence Kushner on a random web-site, that I found when I was searching for a different topic altogether … were, nevertheless, Words meant for my ears alone on Monday, September 24, 2012.
Time for me to atone to my wife, and then try again . . .

2 thoughts on “Atoning … and trying again …

  1. Jen, does the concept of a separate self exist in Judaism? At what point does one experience the wonder of being one with G-d and still maintain an ego?

    • Hi Pam. Great questions!
      As with most things Jewish, once you “scratch beneath the surface,” the answers get more complicated. But let’s begin with straightforward answers:
      1. Yes, Judaism absolutely contains a concept of a “separate self.” For example, I am responsible for my own actions and behaviors — for following commandments or not, for repenting for my “mistakes,” etc. No one else can take care of those obligations for me. I must do them for myself.
      2. According to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in his book “I’m G-d, You’re Not,” we can only feel the wonder of being One with G-d if we let go of our ego, so it is “out of the way.” And, when I think about the moments when I have been most likely to feel “one with the universe” — on a mountain overlooking a valley, at the birth of my children, looking up at the stars, watching the waves roll in at the beach — they are moments when I am “insignificant” in comparison to the miracle that I am seeing.

      Those two answers appear to be contradictory… being responsible for your self vs. getting “rid” of your self (ego) … which is, I’m guessing, why you asked the questions the way you did, for juxtaposition, right? So, let’s see what I can come up with to explain why, when you scratch below the surface of Jewish philosophy, these two contradictions can co-exist harmoniously.
      First, and probably most importantly, is that it is simply impossible for humans to experience the wonder of losing our ego and “feeling Oneness” for more than a few moments. The rest of the time, we have to be content with allowing our “knowledge of Oneness” impact our behaviors.
      How do we do that? Well, although the analogy is not perfect, think about Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego, in which the Ego is given the daunting task of mediating between the Id and the Superego. Now, imagine the “Self” is the “Id,” while “Oneness” is the “Superego.” My “job” is to figure out how to balance the needs of “Self” and “Oneness.”
      Importantly, while acknowledging Everything is One forces me to realize that everyone else’s needs are just as important as mine (because everyone is equally and infinitely valuable), it simultaneously means no one else’s needs are more important than mine. Thus, acknowledging that Everything is One does not translate to a requirement that I practice self-denial — rather, everything being One means I have an obligation to take care of myself, because I have infinite value as part of the One. As Milton Steinberg said, “one service Judaism performs for Jews which is often overlooked: it is the first function of a human being to respect himself . . . to injury none, to help all, but to allow none to injure him.” Likrat Shabbat: Worship, Study, and Song (Expanded Ed. 1978) at 162.
      In addition, knowing Everything is One means my decision making framework is no longer a zero-sum game, where I either win (I get what I need or want) or lose (I get nothing, because the “other” won). Rather, life becomes a non-zero sum, or win-win, game … because I can “win” directly as me, and I can “win” indirectly via any positive benefit to the One (which includes everyone else, but also me).
      I’m not suggesting it’s easy to know how to balance the drive to act for Self and the drive to act from knowledge of Oneness, but they are not always in conflict.
      If you have any other questions, let me know! 🙂

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