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Parshat Vayetze 5769: Image and Identity - Part 2

by in Vayetze .

"One who knows himself knows Hashem, and one who does not know himself, how could he know Hashem?[1]


Journey with me


"One cannot know Hashem if he does not know his inner-self, his soul and his body. For what could one who does not know the essence of his inner-self want with wisdom?" - Ibn Ezra Shemot 31:18

The journey to self-discovery is a journey to wisdom. Without self-knowledge, Torah is a collection of facts and rules whereas it should be so much more than that. Torah should integrate every facet of life into a single, coherent worldview. It is such a worldview that I try to present through my shiurim and essays on iAwaken. iAwaken is not intended as a resource for "Vorts" at the Shabbos table.

To understand the worldview I present, it is important that you understand not only the texts I use and quote or the ideas I present, but also something about me and about my own journey. It is for this reason that Gadol shimushah, yoteir meilimudah - personal apprenticeship to a teacher is more valuable than formal study. So much so is this the case that Rabbi Yehuda Mekorvil[2] writes that while one may sacrifice some time from Torah study to bury the dead, one may never sacrifice time that could be spent in shimush(apprenticeship). In serving a Rebbe, living by his side, and watching the way he sees the world and conducts his life, the student learns his integrated worldview in ways he could not in formal study.

In this virtual world in which many of us now live and learn, shimushis hard. How do you build a personal relationship with a Rav over the Internet? How can you learn a coherent worldview from a string of sound bites? I am trying three mechanisms to reduce the impact of these shortcomings of Internet learning:

  1. The live Gemarra shiur where I am better able to connect personally to people learning with me.
  2. Through personal correspondence with you where possible.
  3. By opening my own journey to you a little, and exposing some of my own vulnerability in the process. In this way you can better contextualize what I am teaching and understand how I am using my self-knowledge to explore Torah, and Torah wisdom to better understand myself. You can then do the same.

Through iAwaken I would hope to open doorways for you to vistas that others may miss ,and to illuminate pathways of self-discovery down which others may fear to wander. I have no dogmatic axioms to preach to you. I simply share with you my own journeying down an exhilarating road with no predetermined (by me) destination, using the method, signposts and directions taught to me by great Rabeim of the previous generation. 
I present to you glimpses of my discoveries and deeper and deeper, and more and more relevant Torah insights that I find as I travel, adventure and explore. Every Shiur and essay on the sight is me talking or learning to myself, inviting you, my dear friends, to listen in - if you're interested!


Testing Identity: From Notoriety to Anonymity

Many people asked me this week for guidelines on how to discern between image and identity and how to embark on a journey of self-discovery. I explained some techniques to those who asked. For me personally though, one of the toughest and most important parts of the process has been our emigration from South Africa to the USA.

My family and I had lived a fairly high profile life in South Africa for two generations. Thousands of people at one time or another over the years, regularly attended my many shiurim during the week. My name was recognized throughout the Jewish community as well as among political, business and academic leaders. But here's what troubled me: When people greeted me in shul, or in the street, when people honored me, were they greeting and honoring my image or my identity? Was teaching Torah something I needed to do for my image, or for my identity? Was it my image or my identity that demand I earn my living outside of Torah to retain the intellectual independence I jealously guarded?

If these things were image related, they were disposable at any time. If they were part of my identity, they were crucial sources of nourishment for my soul. It was important for me to discover if they were image or identity. But how was I to discover that without testing?

Emigration was the test. Remember, last week we said that image is how others see you, identity is how you see yourself. Well, arriving in Los Angeles, a city whose Jewish population is ten times that of the whole of South Africa, was the first time in my life (other than my first few weeks in Yeshiva as a fifteen year-old!) that I had no image, because almost nobody saw me, nobody noticed me, knew who I was or even cared!

It was as difficult for the other members of my family who were all used to being singled out for some achievement or other, and became suddenly anonymous and invisible. I cannot forget the feeling I had when I called our children's school soon after we arrived, a leading LA Jewish Day School, and after giving my name to the receptionist was asked, "Rabbi who? Can you spell that for me?!" My name had zero image value here when we arrived. I felt like Chonni Hama'agal[3] must have when he woke up after seventy years of sleep. He knew his own identity, but had lost his image and could not survive. I had never before appreciated what it must have been like for so many professionals who, when they emigrated from Eastern Europe or later from the former USSR, transitioned from notoriety in their homelands to anonymity, in a single day.

Coming from a life that was almost entirely image into one where my image had no value I needed to begin my search for identity very quickly. My instinctive reaction was to recreate structures in the States that would provide me with duplicates of the image I had lost. But later I recognized the once in a lifetime opportunity I had been given, to start digging my identity out from under the rubble of a now obsolete image. Once that is done, I would embroider a different image designed to enhance that newfound identity, not to replace it. This is the oneness of image and identity that I wrote of last week.

It is not necessary for you to emigrate in order to test what in your life is image and what is identity! But you can spend some designated time imagining yourself in a time and place in which you are anonymous. A place where your past accomplishments are unknown and of no interest. Imagine yourself as a refugee, with no money, no power or influence, no friends, and no family. What are you left with? That, is your identity.


The Emigration of Yaacov

Yaacov's emigration had an opposite dynamic. He did not lose his image when he left home; but he did fear the loss of his identity.

Back home he was all identity. It was Eisav who was the master of image. Eisav was the diplomat and the businessman. Yaacov was the Tzaddik, who within the walls of the Beit Hamedrash insulated himself from any form of deceit and corruption. Torah was his identity. He was Yitzchak's son, Avraham's grandson and heir. Ish Tam Yosheiv Ohallim (an integrated man, settled in the sanctuaries of learning and prayer) does not describe his image; it describes the essence of who he truly was: his identity.

This all comes to an abrupt halt when, fleeing from Eisav's wrath he needs to engage in the world of business in a corrupt and idolatrous environment. He will need to work hard in a secular field and project an image of sufficient shrewdness not to be taken advantage of. As Yaacov journeys away from home he feared the potential loss of his identity, not the loss of his image.

He awakens from his dream of the ladder with this fear affirmed. He has only just begun his journey, and he has already lost his ability to identify Kedusha (sanctity) in the place where he is! "Surely Hashem is present in this place, and I did not even know it! And he was afraid (because of his error in not identifying the sanctity of the place - Seforno)." (28:16-17)

So Yaacov composes the most beautiful prayer by which to preserve the integrity of his identity as he moves into the alien world of Harran. "If Hashem is with me, and guards me along this journey that I am about to undertake, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I will return with integrity to my father's home, and He will be my G-d; then ….of all you give me, I will give ten percent to you.(28:20-22)"

The Kelei Yakkar (28:20)proves that Yaacov is not asking for physical protection; Hashem has already guaranteed that to him (28:15). Yaacov is asking for the protection of his soul, the true identity he so terribly fears he might otherwise lose.

In this prayer Yaacov's identity is clearly articulated: I am a member of the household of Yitzchak and Avraham. That is my home and the place to which I will return. My true identity is not my body nourished by food and protected by clothes. It is my soul, nourished by Torah and clothed in Mitzvot. (The Midrash Rabbah[4] says that by "bread" Yaacov referred to Torah, and "clothes" are mitzvot. For we absorb Torah into our beings and it nourishes the depths of our souls.Mitzvot are more external; we "wear" them in ways that are more visible than the Torah we imbibe. )And as for my business endeavors: you are my shareholder, and I will deliver you a return of 10 percent on all the revenue I earn. I have no identity separate from you and your Torah.

No sooner has he affirmed his identity that it is already put to the test: Seeing the shepherds at the well delay watering the flock he is concerned for the suffering of the sheep (Ohr Hachaim). Image would have him overlook the issue and build relationships with his future business community. Identity demanded that he intervene and teach G-d's will. He chooses identity and challenges the shepherds, eventually opening the well single-handedly so as to allow no further excuse for the delays.

It is in this moment of identities conquest over image that Yaacov meets Rachel, his beloved basheirt. An honest relationship with oneself, precedes intimate relationships with another.



[1] Rabeinu Bechaya

[2] Tosfot, Ketuvot 17a D"H: Mevatlin; and Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Gilayon Hshas Berachot 7b.

[3] Ta'anit 23a

[4] Bereishit70:5

Latest update: October 18, 2014

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