When Adam ate from the tree, G-d asked him, “Where are you? Where is the real you?” [Zerah Kodesh, Devarim] Since that time, the question of who we truly are has troubled mankind.
One of the most famous people who struggled with this was Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher, considered the father of modern philosophy. In pondering the question of how I know that I really exist, he postulated that the fact that I can think about this question proves that there is someone who is doing the thinking. In other words, the real me is a thinker: “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I am.” This idea has led many to completely identify who they are with whatever thoughts pass through their mind, often to their own great detriment.
About three centuries later, another Frenchman, Jean-Paul Sartre, pondered Descartes’ dictum and realized that the consciousness that is capable of taking a step back and saying “I think” is not the same consciousness that is doing the thinking.[The Transcendence of the Ego] In other words, our ability to be aware of our thoughts and our very thinking of those thoughts testifies to a deeper self than our mere thoughts themselves.
Unfortunately neither Descartes nor Sartre were familiar with the writings of a third Frenchman, Rabbeinu Tam, one of the greatest Talmudic commentators and a grandson of Rashi, (acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki a foremost biblical commentator) who lived nearly five centuries before Descartes. His insight into the question that they struggled with may have proved helpful for both of them.
In his Sefer Hayashar, Rabbeinu Tam writes:
“We see that our soul possesses a da’at (consciousness) capable of thinking. It has another da’at, higher than the first, through which it knows itself, and its knowledge of that knowing. This is referred to as the da’at of da’at – in this da’at we experience closeness to G-d, blessed be He.” [Sefer Hayashar, end of the Fifth Gate]
Rabbeinu Tam taught that who we are is much deeper than any thoughts we may have. Our ability to stand apart from our thoughts and observe them testifies to a more profound level of self that is capable of connecting with the divine. Our real self is having the capability of profound awareness and attachment to the source of all life. The more we develop our awareness of this deeper self, the more connected we become. This development enables us to transcend the ephemeral shadows that flit through our mind.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira (a profound Chassidic master and the spiritual leader of the Warsaw Ghetto), instructed his students in achieving the type of consciousness that Rabbeinu Tam wrote about. He took it to a new level, using it as a means for character development. He began as follows:
“Look at your thoughts for several minutes, simply observing what you are thinking. You will slowly begin to feel your mind emptying from these thoughts, and you will notice that they have slowed from their regular flow.”
Rabbi Shapira began by giving practical direction in developing the perspective of an observer towards one’s own thoughts. By developing and staying with this vantage point for sufficient time, a space is created within the mind, “an emptying from these thoughts”, during which our thoughts slow down, and we become aware of the thoughts themselves.
In this space of greater consciousness, Rabbi Shapira advises the student to go even deeper and connect consciously to the divine by doing the following:
“Then begin to recite one verse, such as, ‘The Lord, our G-d, is truth,’ in order to attach your mind, which is empty of other thoughts, to one thought of holiness.”
Once this enhanced connection is in place Rabbi Shapira teaches that it can be used to develop one’s character:
“Afterward, it is possible to ask for your needs regarding a trait which is in need of refinement…”
“[With the qualification that] one should not speak forcefully, because the purpose is to quiet one’s thoughts, and by saying something forcefully, a person’s selfness will be awakened. On the contrary, do this in a very gentle way.”
Rabbi Shapira taught that this method could be used to develop all areas of character that a person desires to improve. He stressed though that the focus should not be on the negative, but rather on the polar opposite positive behavior that one desires to strengthen.
For example, a person suffering from laziness should not speak about overcoming laziness, but instead about acquiring alacrity and industriousness.
He explained in the following way:
“If you see a small child crying and you tell him not to cry, the more you tell him not to cry, the more he cries. You get whatever you focus on. If you focus on the negative, that is what you get; so instead, focus on the positive trait you want to develop.” [Derech HaMelech, pg. 451]
In summary, we are much more and can be much more than we may have thought. By appreciating the wondrous depths of self that we possess, and taking the time and practice to go there, we can develop a character and a life that reveals the highest quality. Try the recipe of the Rabbi Shapiro and discover who you truly are.