Bereshis - Subduing the Ego
The Torah describes the story of the creation of the Universe, which culminated with the creation of Adam Harishon, the first man. Adam was given the commandment to abstain from eating of the עץ הדעת טוב ורע - the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. His wife Chava (Eve) was seduced by the snake, who represents the embodiment of the angel known as the יצר הרע (Evil Inclination). She indeed partook of the forbidden fruit, and then gave of it to her husband Adam. He ate from it as well, and the two were banished from the Garden in wake of their grievous sin.
This story would seem to be simple and straightforward, yet when we look deeper, we find tremendous depths to be explored.
The deeper sources explain that the enticement of the snake contained a much more profound aspect than what we see at the surface level. The snake came to man and said that the entire purpose of existence is to come close to Hashem. In spiritual terms, the way that one comes close to another is through דמיון - making oneself similar to the object of one's desire for closeness. This is because in the spiritual realm there are no physical bodies, nor physical space. In that dimension, only similarity can create closenes, and thus, the more two spiritual beings are alike, the greater their level of attachment.
The snake therefore said that if one would want to truly come close to Hashem, one would have to emulate Him. The more one emulates Hashem, the greater that individual would be, just as Hashem Himself is great. The snake thus argued that just as Hashem is not forced by any outside being to act in any particular way, it would actually make Man most like Hashem to defy Hashem. In this way, Man would express the fact the he is not compelled by any outside force to act in a specific fashion. This would thereby bring expression to Man's similarity to Hashem, bringing him into the greatest closeness with the Eternal One.
Adam and Chava were fooled by this twisted logic, and were thereby led to eat from the tree, forced to bear the disastrous results.
It is essential to understand the argument of the snake, and what was wrong with its argument. On the surface its logic seemed to be quite sound. It is certainly true that one comes close to Hashem by being similar to Him. Our Chazal teach us that we are enjoined to imitate the ways of Hashem - ...מה הוא רחום אף אתה רחום - "Just as He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate." Many of the mitzvos themselves have this theme. Just as Hashem does kindness, we are enjoined to do kindness. Just as Hashem visited Avraham when he was sick, so we are to visit the sick. Just as Hashem performed the ultimate kindness in burying Moshe, so we are to perform that ultimate kindness.
What indeed was the fault in the snake's logic?
To understand this we need to look deeply into the concept of free will. This concept means that we are ultimately able to choose between Good and Evil, and we are not coerced into acting in either manner.
This is actually the fundamental idea that makes us Human. Animals are driven to follow their desires and their instincts. There is no morality for an animal. If an animal kills another animal in order to subsequently ingest it, we do not attach any negative moral standing to that act. The animal is totally driven by its natural desires and has no ability to alter them.
The Human being, on the other hand, does indeed have the ability to look objectively at his own desires and instincts, and actually act against the program that is embedded in his nature. Man has the ability to subdue his natural and pressing need when a more important future need is contained within his mind's eye. Man can actually look at his own thoughts and change the script that would otherwise run its natural course. This ability grants him the chance to have free will. He can choose to subdue his nature as he follows a greater calling. Thus, only Man can be asked to follow his higher self.
This ability is at the core of what defines Man because it is actually a unique and Godly ability. Just as Hashem can choose as He pleases, so too Man may choose as He pleases.
In order to truly understand the flaw in the snake's argument, we must now examine how Hashem Himself uses His own free will.
The first moment we see Hashem exercising free will is in the very moment of Creation itself. At that moment, Hashem had a desire to bestow the Ultimate Good on another. He expressed that desire by creating the world, and ultimately, Man. Thus, it would seem that Hashem was forced to bring the world into existence by His 'nature' to do Good. This, however, is impossible, because Hashem is never forced to do anything - his free will is absolute.
It could be said that Hashem could actually have left the world in a state of potential creation without bringing that potential to realization. In a certain sense, this would have been akin to actually creating the world, because for Hashem, His thought and deed are equal. Thus, he did not have to bring the world into being in order to fulfill that desire to give Good, but rather the potential creation would have been enough.
Despite this, Hashem chose to go take the final step and bring the world from potential to actualization.
If we examine the two possibilities that faced Hashem, as it were, we see something very interesting. If Hashem had actually chosen not to create the world, He would have retained His absolute Uniqueness and Oneness, without bringing the potential for another being into fruition. His desire to give Goodness would have been fulfilled just by virtue of the potential for that Goodness to be given.
In creating the world, however, He chose to bring another being into existence to receive that Goodness in actuality. In order for this being to actually receive anything, it would be necessary for him to have a separate personality and separate will, thus ensuring that there would be a 'someone' to receive the Goodness. This being would need to choose, through his free will, to receive that Goodness, which is ultimately the Light that Hashem wants to bestow. Thus, Hashem would subdue his desire to give His Goodness to the deeds of this Human being he would now create. Someone else's will would play a role in how Hashem Himself would express His own will.
In essence, when Hashem expressed His free will, He did so by subduing His own will to the will of the being He created.
Now we can understand the subtle trick of the snake. The snake would have Man believe that in order to be like Hashem, Man must defy Hashem and thereby express free will, just as Hashem expresses free will. In truth, however, man must use his free will in exactly the way Hashem uses His free will - by subduing his will to the will of Another. In so doing, Man closes the circuit of Hashem's desire to give, and brings himself into unity with Hashem. Doing the opposite - choosing to defy Hashem - contravenes the very nature of free will itself, and places Man in the darkest place possible - away from the Light of Hashem, Heaven forbid.
The snake said that Man would express his free will by flouting the will of Hashem. This, it claimed, would make Man close to Hashem. Instead, Man's defiance brought him into a place of great distance. Only the choice of acquiescence would bring Man to true likeness and proximity to Hashem.
There is a very significant practical teaching that is contained within this concept. When examining this idea, one could ask, Where exactly is the concept of free will contained within the psyche of Man? It would seem appropriate to say that it is contained in the very thing that he most identifies himself with - his ego. It is the ego that represents man's sense of self, his sense of desire and drive. This very sense is what pushes him to relentlessly pursue his need for individuality and significance. It is most commonly expressed in man's pursuit of money, fame and lust. Yet this same ego presents us with a curious plot twist. This very quality also drives a person to connect with others. The need for companionship and love, for Light and spirituality clearly emanate from the ego as well.
The dilemma that each of us face is whether we will pursue our ego in selfishness and disconnect from others, or use our ego to connect. We have the choice whether we will choose what seems most pressing - our selfish desire - or instead express free will in its truest sense by subduing our own sense of self in deference to the needs of another. When we choose the former path, we experience only the pain of separation and darkness. When we choose the latter, we experience the ecstasy of being in synch with the true nature of our free will, and join others in the light of unity.
This is why the Torah gives us so many opportunities to develop this capacity in our relationships with others. The mitzvah of צדקה, charity, for one example, is a chance to make proper use of what we would otherwise naturally be most possessive of - our hard earned money. We instead are enjoined to take that natural tendency for selfishness, and redirect it toward connection. We give a significant portion of our earnings to others, thus showing that our goal in life is to transform our very egos into vehicles of connection.
This concept can be instructive in helping us understand our own emotional needs as well. Many times one's sense of self will create a need within him to 'have his way.' When one demands his needs, however, he just creates a circumstance where the ego of the other person involved in the interaction is also activated. This creates a situation of separation and antagonism that leads to nothing but anger.
The amazing thing is that one can take this very emotional need, and when it is expressed with humility and with an openness for compromise, it can actually create a tremendous sense of unity between the two parties. As each person listens to the other's emotional needs and they find common ground, their very egos act as a bridge to connect their two worlds, instead of tearing them apart.
This is the Divine gift that Hashem has given to all of us - the free will to choose to raise our very egos to be used as a point of connection between ourselves and others, and ultimately, between ourselves and Hashem.
Let us expand on the last point and shed some light on the concept. When thinking about the connection that one forges with another by expressing an emotional need with humility and openness to compromise, we can understand it by bringing a practical example. We could compare this to one who purchases an item, as opposed to one who receives the same item as a gift. The one who receives the item as a gift will naturally lack a true appreciation of the gift. He will therefore treat it accordingly. If the same person were to pay for that item, he would value it more. If we look at the difference, we will see that the person who actually purchased an item had to give up something to receive the item. When one gives up something, in this case money, in order to receive an item, he becomes more attached to the item he sacrificed for. When he receives that item for free, his sense of attachment is diminished.
This principle is referred to as the concept of נהמא דכיסופא - the 'bread of shame.' This means that the Human being is programmed to attach significance to something that he has earned and sacrificed for, as opposed to something he receives gratis. This is intimately connected to the concept of ego, because the ego is actually the currency, as it were, that one can cash in for a sense of attachment, as we have seen. It is precisely the desire that one pulls one toward self-centeredness that enables the individual to feel a sense of earning when that selfish nature is transcended.
This is why we feel the greatest sense of love toward those we have given to, as opposed to those we take from. When we are in taking mode, we actually become more and more removed from those we take from. When we are in giving mode, we create bonds of connection. Real love is all about a sense of connection. The fantasy love of the Western mindset is actually a form of selfish disconnection that results in personal ruin. This is because it idealizes self-gratification instead of mutual respect and association.
It is interesting to note that there is a debate as to whether the ego is a positive or negative force in man. There are those who would say that the ego is by definition an evil that exists in man that must be eradicated. Others will say that it is in fact something that is a basic component of man and is not inherently evil. The truth is that ego is actually a neutral component of man's psychic makeup. Whether it is good or evil completely depends on how Man makes use of it. If he uses it for separation and selfishness, it is destructive. If he uses it for connection and love, it has the greatest potential to be used in a constructive manner.
This concept is extremely instructive in our day to day interactions with others. Many times a person is in a situation where he feels a certain emotion that he feels he must quell. He would rather smile on the surface than admit that he feels negatively towards another. The individual thinks in his mind that it is almost silly to feel the particular negative emotion, and he attempts to dismiss it as irrational. Nevertheless, it continues to plague his thoughts despite its seeming triviality.
If the negativity he feels would be expressed in an explosion of anger and emotion, it would have the result of bringing about disconnection between the parties. Thus, he tries valiantly to suppress the feeling, avoiding confrontation. If he would actually express that feeling in a modest and conciliatory fashion, the result would usually be to create a compromise and ultimately a strengthening between the parties.
Again we see that the ego itself contains the capacity to create absolute separation, or great bonding, depending on the approach - selfishness or humility. This inability to suppress the emotion would seem, in a sense, to be Hashem's gentle push for the Human being to exercise his free will by being forced to choose between estrangement and unity.
This concept also explains the words of the greatest of all wise men, Shlomo Hamelech. He said שונא מתנות יחיה - the one who hates gifts shall live. This means that a gift in essence is normally an instrument of separation since the receiver has not earned the gift. The concept of life refers to connection to the Source of life, which is Hashem. One who accustoms himself to receiving that which he has not earned will ultimately lose his connection with Hashem. One who hates gifts and instead is only willing to receive that which he deserves will ultimately find himself full of life and Unity with Hashem.
It is important to note that there are times when accepting a gift is actually an act of giving. When the giver needs to feel a connection to the receiver, the receiver's gracious acceptance of the gift will serve to create a bond between the parties. Nevertheless, he must bear this in mind, lest the gift act to sever their connection. If one would reject the gift in a show of disdain, this would clearly create animosity and disconnection. The general rule is that if the interaction is performed with humility and sensitivity, the two sides will feel more connected; if there is pride and antagonism, the result will be dissociation.