Monday, June 6, 2011

Killing the Ego (Portion B'ha-alotechah)

From the time of his birth, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, until his death at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is the Torah’s pre-eminent character. His relationship with both God and the people of Israel, throughout his forty years of leadership, is unparalleled. Thus he is known as Moshe Rabbeynu, Moses, our Teacher. Torah tells us that his prophetic wisdom and vision will never be equaled.

What was the source of Moses’ greatness? Of all his many virtues, this week’s portion, B’ha-alotecha, suggests that the most important is his humility. Thus the text teaches: “Moses was the most humble man on earth.” (Numbers 12:3)

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner comments on the connection between Moses’ extraordinary humility and his spiritual mastery. In his book, I’m God, You’re Not, Rabbi Kushner notes: “The goal of spiritual life is to get your ego out of the way—outwit the sucker; dissolve it; shoot it; kill it. Silence the incessant planning, organizing, running, manipulating, possessing, and processing that are the ineluctable redoubts of the ego. Not because these activities are bad or wrong or even narcissistic. . . but because they preclude an awareness of the Divine. To paraphrase the Talmud, God says, ‘There ain’t enough room in this here world for your ego and Me. You pick.’”

In other words, humility is at the heart of Moses’ greatness because it is a pre-requisite for all true wisdom. When we become too full of ourselves, we shut ourselves off from God and knowledge and deep reciprocal relationships [which may, in the end, all be synonymous]. Only when we learn to let go of our need to be in-the-know, judgmental, and “right” can we grow as people and as Jews.

Two hundred years ago, the English poet John Keats expressed this same notion in his theory of “negative capability”, which he described as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats points to Shakespeare and Coleridge as masters of this art, but we, as Jews, might look back farther, to Moses, as our guide.

This week consider: how can you better live with—and listen to—those around you with this sort of true humility? How might we diminish our egos and thereby make more room for God and our loved ones?

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