Have you wondered about the after-life? Of course we have our tradition about what happens after we die. Our souls live on in spriritual ecstasy awaiting 'techiyat hamaitim', the resurrection of the dead, when they will again inhabit their bodies.The after-life is personal. Individual identity continues after death. When I was young I was fascinated by the concept of the after-life in Eastern traditions. According to their beliefs when the soul dies, if it has fulfilled its destiny in this world, it loses its individual identity and becomes one with the great universal soul in heaven. To die, in the best situation, is to lose one's "I" and instead become part of the "We". I remember thinking "and this is a good thing?" I mean, would I want to no longer be me, lose all sense of a personal identity? Can that be something I would look forward to? And what about the ones I love. I would then not meet them in heaven. Can that be an ideal end to existence?
For most of us, what we treasure most is our "I". The thought of losing that "I" is frightening. When we are in a situation in which we feel swallowed up in a crowd we fight to assert our personal selves. Its nice to be "we" in the moment. But never at the cost of losing our "I".
We are soon to celebrate the chag of Shavuot. The end of next week will usher in the new month of Sivan, the month of the holiday. The Torah tells us that on the first of Sivan the Israelites came to the Desert of Sinai. It references the People's encampment in the singular form. Literally it read "And he camped opposite the mountain". The Sages point out that this encampment was like no other in Israel's wilderness experience. Whereas all other encampments were frought with strife and conflict, here all Israel was as one. They were "as one person with one heart".
Now I wonder the same wonder I had when I learned about the Eastern concept of the after-life. Is this a good thing that all Israel was as one person with one heart. Is this "we'ness" the ideal? What about each person's need to feel their "I"? What about our uniqueness?
Last Shabbat I was in Meron. Saturday night was Lag Ba'Omer. Near 500,000 Jews would come between Saturday night and Sunday eve from all over Israel to visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on his yahrzeit. At the 'kever' Saturday night a flame was lit. As the fires soared heavenward there commenced a night full of spiritual dancing and inspiration. Because I was there for Shabbat I was able to be close to the setting for the lighting of the fires. I stood together with some 15,000 mostlty Hassidim in their shtreimlich and waited more than two hours in prayer and devotion for the magic moment of the lighting of the flame. The atmosphere was reverential and intense.
Prayers were on everyone's lips. And then the Boyaner Rebbe lit the fire. The music began. And the throng become alive with a flame of their own, one of joy and exultation. Everyone was jumping up and down in their place. The words of the melodies were sung with exuberance and repeated over and over. There was no "I" in that setting. Each person surrendered self to the majesty of the moment. There was only a "we". Yet that 'we' brought life to all who comprised it as they never felt in their singular "I" no matter how compelling the moment.
The "I" was dead in those moments. All there was was the "we". And life was never more beautiful.
It was interesting for me to see that the inspiration led to some circles being formed. Those jumping up and down in inspired response to the moment remained in the stands. They did not feel the need to join the circles. They were at one with those in the circles. "We" were dancing, wherever we were. Yes, there were a few who seemed to need to make a personal statement in their enthusiasm. They felt the need to enter the middle of the circles and dance to express there "I". How awkward they appeared and how pitiable. They could not lose themselves and needed to make this holy time a time of self expression. They did not realize that their need to occupy the center,cost them the most precious gift. They lost the gift of the moment, the gift of the "we".
One of the great mystical disciplines is called 'hisbatlus', self nullification. The work involves learning to minimize oneself until one has a little ego as possible. At one level it seems such a difficult effort, to make oneself small and inconsequential, to surrender one's "I". Yet in Meron at the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai I came to realize that those who practice the discipline of 'hisbatlus' are not in reality giving up anything. Rather they are gaining a powerful spiritual gift. When they 'kill' therir ego they make possible the sense of oneness with Israel our People, and with Hashem and His world. 'Hisbatlus' is a path to joy, a supreme joy. The work of ego nullification is the only way to get there!
When our ancestors came to Sinai they experienced the unique sense of 'hisbatlus'. They lost themselves, but for a net gain!
They became one whole! That oneness made the revelations at Sinai possible. Each Israelite felt an inspiration and ecstasy but only by surrenedering his/her "I".
The lesson here is oh so compelling. The path to joy is not as we imagine by enlarging our ego or enhancing our self. On the contrary, the path to true joy is losing one's need to self expansiveness so as to become part of the universal and the G-dly.
Being nothing is indeed the path to acquiring everything!
How sad that so many waste their lives traveling in the wrong direction in search of the treasure.
The lesson of Sinai, the lesson of Meron, the lesson of all those who know the secret of happiness, is that real joy is attained in unity.
And real unity is attained when we surrender our "I" .