One night during his voyage to Haran, Jacob dreams of a ladder into heaven by which angels of God ascend and descend. The dream brings enlightenment to Jacob: “And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not’” (Gen. 28:16). For us, his descendants toiling along the paths to our own awakening, the verses may contain models for spiritual work. In God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner gives an impressive presentation of the powerful ways in which various readings of that verse represent different approaches to spirituality.
When the “I” Is Too Big, God Can’t Come In
Kushner quotes Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz, a student of the Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, who brings our attention to the “I” in “and I knew it not.” The ego, he says, is what stands in the way of recognizing God’s presence in our lives. It is so hard for us to comprehend that there is something beyond ourselves, a larger story that we are a part of; the fact that what guides reality is not “[our] power and the might of [our] hand” (Deut. 8:17), but rather the Master of the universe. The source of this difficulty is our powerful sense of self. We experience ourselves not only as separate from our surroundings, but, fallaciously, as the center of the universe. In truth, we are merely parts of a massive human tapestry, of biological, historical, and even cosmic fabrics. It is only through opening ourselves up to that insight that we can facilitate a life abounding with love, giving, and receiving. There is meaning to be found in doing for others and not only for ourselves.
This idea is encapsulated in our verse: we arrive at “this place,” where God is, by diminishing our sense of ourselves as the center. “And I knew not” is the key containing both the problem and its solution. The “I” initially prevents us from comprehending what lies beyond us, but if we learn to moderate the outsize impact of the self on our outlook, we can come to know that God is in “this place.”
When Moses recounts the Giving of the Torah, he tells the people of Israel, “The Lord spoke with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire. I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare unto you the word of the Lord” (Deut. 5:4–5). Moses is the medium communicating the awesome divine revelation to the people standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. The Baal Shem Tov, embodying the spirit of Hasidism, reads Moses’ description as a template for spiritual work: the verse “I stood between the Lord and you,” he says, implies that the “I,” the ego, is what stands between us and the Lord. An overdeveloped ego tends to worship itself; it is only by practicing humility and meekness, and making room for the other, that we can draw closer to God.
And I Knew Not Myself
I would like to present an alternate approach: So far we have seen that it is the ego that obstructs our path to God. But there is another way to read the statement “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.” In Hebrew, the verse can be taken to imply that Jacob cannot detect God’s presence because he does not know “I,” meaning himself. Ardent existential awareness of God’s presence can only emanate from a profound connection to my own life: my inner world, narrative, family, talents, disappointments, joys, and loves. Only in a room of my own can I access the key to the meaning of my life and God’s presence therein. When I succeed in truly knowing myself, connecting to myself, being myself fully, I will also find my connection to God. My deep inner identity is my place within the fabric of reality and the universe, and my journey is toward myself, the love of my life, my children, the world, life, and God. When I fail to reach myself, it is generally because I am being held back by something: fear of others’ opinions, an insufficient capacity for self-awareness, and other hang-ups and anxieties. By constantly striving toward a purer, more precise and more authentic inner space, eventually I will reach Him.
Consequently, we can propose an interpretation that, on the face of it at least, seems diametrically opposed to the one posited by Rabbi Horowitz. “And I knew it not,” in this reading, would imply not that annulling the ego is the path to God, but the inverse – that an inability to recognize God’s presence could stem from people’s failure to know themselves. People who do not know themselves cannot perceive the divine within themselves; nor, Rav Kook adds, can they see the other: “And as there is no ‘I,’ there can be no ‘him,’ much less a ‘you’” (Orot HaKodesh, pt. 3, 140).
The Ego and I
Yet I believe that, ultimately, there is no contradiction between the interpretation we posited and the one put forth by Rabbi Horowitz, for identity can be said to have two layers: the “I” and the “self.” The first, true identity must be cultivated, while the false self should be sloughed off and left behind. When one is engaged in spiritual work, the great challenge is to distinguish between the two identities and learn when to annihilate the ego and when to listen to an inner voice and nurture it.
There is grave danger in that path. People can come to deceive themselves and intensify the negative sides of their personalities, bringing the ego to the fore rather than nullifying it. Statements to the effect that one does or does not do something due to some inner truth can, rather than reflect the voice of the soul, express base desires cloaked in spiritual jargon. In such cases, instead of helping to propel one forward, insights regarding the existence of an inner self can hold one back.
Paradoxically, it is those very spiritual seekers who are most at risk. To strive spirituality is to grapple with the self, and putting oneself in the center generally entails a bias in favor of the ego.
The Ego Barrier
First, we must acknowledge that the journey to the self is long. In fact, it lasts a lifetime, and it relies on the understanding that one must never fixate on a specific spot and sanctify it, but rather constantly travel inward, moving slowly.
Second, the order of the inner work must follow the stages delineated in the statement “Depart from evil, and do good” (Ps. 34:15). At first, the focus of the movement is on shedding the unwanted identity, whittling away ego and base desires. Only through this can one come to the second stage – bringing to light, cultivating, and empowering an inner voice that is pure and righteous. It is a process that Rav Kook describes as follows: “Morality is the hallway, and holiness is the drawing room” (Shemona Kevatzim 1:133). A rectified morality frees one of character flaws in preparation for the holy.
Third, in order to counter the danger of inner work that only magnifies the ego, one must complement inward spiritual efforts with practical work that focuses on the other.
Finally, one must come to terms with the attributes of one’s true and false identities, so as not to confuse them.
The belief that God is inherent in my soul signifies that within me is a connection with the transcendent. And my link to this root of my soul is what enables me to recognize that selfsame spark in the other. Only when my singularity resonates with God, the Torah, and the other, when I recognize that my unique branch grows out of a broad trunk that forks into countless other branches, will I know that I have come into contact with my inner self.
The ego, conversely, is the barrier between me and reality, and between me and transcendence. When I am angry, jealous, or arrogant, I am faced with the extent to which that barrier is yet present within me, the degree to which my ego still controls me.
Spiritual progress does not depend on freeing oneself of those negative traits so much as on recognizing them, when they arise, as expressions of the ego. Self-awareness, which enables one to observe those qualities from an external vantage, cuts us off from negative emotions: I see my anger, but I do not identify with it. The perspective from which I observe these emotions is itself an expression of the deep, positive place that I strive for within myself.