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The Essential I (By Dr. Marc Gafni)

By Dr. Marc Gafni

In this excerpt from Reclaiming Rosh Hashanah: The Dance of Tears (forthcoming), Dr. Marc Gafni explores the Garden of Eden biblical story and Abraham Kook’s teaching on the “inner essential I,” through which we come to understand that God requires our Unique Self service in the world rather than our service as strangers “at the gates of our own psyches.”

To explore the Essential I, I begin with a mystical passage from the writings of Abraham Kook—a profoundly liberated philosopher and scholar, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, and realized mystic par excellence. Kook writes:

I-am in the midst of exile.
The inner essential I of the individual
only reveals itself …
to the extent of the higher courage
which is drenched with the pure light of higher radiance
which burns within.

The first line of the quote comes from the Prophet Ezekiel, who—before receiving the Vision of the Merkava, the Chariot, the lodestone of the Kabbalah—cries out -ואני בתוך הגולה. “I am in the midst of exile.” Kook understands Ezekiel’s statement to refer not only to physical exile, to the fact that Ezekiel was standing by the River Kadar on foreign shores, but as expressing a far more profound sense of inner fragmentation, an inner exile. The inner exile stems from the “inner essential I” being lost. “I”—my I—is in exile. I’ve lost my self some place. I’m looking for my self, I’m playing all sorts of parts and many assorted games, but I haven’t found my self.

This search for the I, for the authentic self, is taken by Kook to be the subtext of the biblical Garden of Eden story. Original sin, writes Kook, is the inability to find the Essential I:

The first man sinned.
He became alienated from his own person-hood.
For he turned to the opinion of the snake and lost himself.
He did not give a clear answer to God’s question where are you,
for he did not know his own soul
because his I-ness had perished
in the sin of bowing to a foreign god.

Original sin is listening to the snake. The snake here is not the fiendish villain. Rather, snake represents any external source of authority or voice which is not my own. Kook is not suggesting that we abandon our reverence, love, and yearning to be guided by all of the great masters and traditions which we inherit. Clearly, one would not want to have to start all over in every lifetime. To stand on the shoulders of those who have come before is elemental wisdom. The snake in this case is, paradoxically, almost always a positive value, idea, or group. However, instead of receiving what we can and must from that idea or source and integrating the new wisdom as part of the deeper and broader framework of our identity, there is a danger that we may co-opt the new wisdom and mistakenly make it our identity. Instead of fostering our own emergent unfolding, we fill our emptiness and void with strange voices which violate the unique contours of our souls.

This is Kook’s read not only of original sin, but of the penultimate sin in biblical myth: idolatry, the sin of bowing to a foreign God. The major description of idolatry in the biblical context is Elohei Nechar, usually translated as “foreign gods.” The word Nechar, however, more precisely translated, might be read as “alienation.” Nikkur in Hebrew, alienation, is the opposite of Hakarah, recognition, a word which derives from the same root. Elohei Nehcar. The gods of your alienation. So we might read the biblical verse “do not make for yourself foreign gods” more accurately as “beware of turning your ways of coping with your alienation into gods.” Nechar is alien, foreign.

Foreign for Kook is not an ethnic or racial category, but a metaphysical-existential category. One of the original Hebrew idioms used often in Talmudic literature is Avodah Zarah, literally translated as “idolatry is strange service”. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, an early Hassidic master, unpacks the meaning in this way: You are not doing your service when you are not living your authentic self, your Essential I; there is a stranger living your life in your body. You are alienated from your own story. Remember George Steiner’s caution to us all, “Strangers are we, errants at the gates of our own psyche.” The entire biblical project is one long cry against idolatry.

The Hebrew word for “Idol” is Tzelem. The Hebrew phrase Tzelem Elohim, usually translated as “image of God,” might be more fairly translated as “Idol of God.” You—the human being—need to find your Essential I, locate your essential self. When you are authentically you, then you are God’s idol. God needs you and worships at your altar. Therefore, you must only worship at the altar of your authenticity; this is what God demands from you. Anything less is Avodah Zarah, worship of the stranger, idolatry.

Note: This post was originally published on May 30, 2012.

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