Friday 27 June 2014

021) Robbed by "Religion"

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk waged a huge philosophical battle against the “I”, the self absorbed ego. He believed that most people have the inability to see beyond themselves, and they are not even aware of this incapacity.

He quotes the opening words of the Shema; 
And you shall love Hashem your G-d”. Isn’t this obvious? Who else, in your religion, are you going to love?
  • Perhaps you will confuse love of yourself for love of G-d. 
  • Perhaps your religion is more self serving than you realize.
  • Perhaps it suits you to be religious because you can hide your egotistical self behind it, and no one will ever know. They will think you are simply acting in the name of G-d. 
Then the Kotzker introduces a further dimension;
And if you think that this deception only applies to this world, know it is just as easily applicable to the next world as well.
(Kochav HaShachar p 45, par 2)

Thus, according to the Kotzker, the insidious nature of this dominant sense of self is ever present, even (perhaps especially) in the realms of spirit. 
Rabbi Wolf of Strikov, together with some older Kotzker Chassidim, were all present at the deathbed of their friend and colleague, R Yisrael. He asked his friend; “Does the evil inclination have an effect on you even now, as you are about to depart this world?” The weak and frail R Yisrael responded; “Absolutely yes! That ‘ganef’ (thief) is standing right here next to me, even at this time. He wants me to say the Shema out loud, and draw out the word ‘echad’ (G-d is one). He wants me to pass away while saying ‘echad’, so that you all can think that I am such a holy sage. Then afterwards I will always be remembered as the holy man who died with the words of the Shema on his lips, just like Rabbi Akiva of old.
(HaShavah LeTova 130)

There are two interesting points about this story:
  1. The evil inclination/ego still stalks an old dying man.
  2. The old man refers to the evil inclination as a ‘ganef’ (thief).
Let’s explore this unusual usage of the word ‘thief’. [The Kotzker Rebbe himself also uses that same expression when referring to the evil inclination/ego. He refers to it as a ‘ganef nistar’, a menacing and ‘sneaky thief’. (See Kochav HaShachar p 43, par 2)]

In our story, the evil inclination is called a ‘thief’ because it was trying to ‘steal’ the death away from R Yisrael. 
“…every death is a private affair. If …(he) had given in …and said the Shema in a loud voice with his last life’s strength, no one would have been present at the death of this man – neither the man going to meet his maker nor the friends gathered about his deathbed – for they would all be acting out a script already written… rather than standing in the mystery of the passing of a dear friend…To have died while acting out a role or an image…is not to have died, but to have been already dead.”
(The Quest for Authenticity, by Michael Rosen p 19)

Sometimes, acting out the ‘script’ that religion presents, robs us of the authenticity of the moment. Far from being noble, it could be the work of the ‘thief’.

It is here that we, as religious people, walk a very fine line. So much of what we do is dictated by higher authorities. We have to do them. But we also have to be who we are. We are not expected to be clones of each other.

I once observed someone responding selectively to two people, in the space of about five minutes: To the first person who asked how he was, he said; “Fine thanks.” To the second, he said; “Fine, thank G-d". The first response was to someone who was not religious, while the second response was to another religious person. Some might say that he was simply being respectful to both persons. Others (Kotzkers?) might say he didn’t want to be caught out by the second person for failing to ‘read from the script’.

Whatever the psychology was, one thing is for sure. Real religion is there to enhance our moments. If we find ourselves acting out roles or following scripts, so, that our performances are met with appropriate approval, we may instead be victims of that ‘thief’ who is trying to rob us of our authentic life moments.

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