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The Fight Between Us and Our Ego

Topic: Kabbalistic Concepts | Posted:June 8, 2016

In this portion, there's a discussion of the Nazirite, a person who voluntarily decides at times to take a vow to separate from the physicality of this world to some degree for a certain period of time, such as not drinking wine or not cutting their hair. If they failed, and this was during the time the Temple existed, they would have to bring what's called an asham, a sacrifice, to cleanse themselves of their failures.

It says in the Talmud, in the Gemara, that there was a priest named Shimon the Righteous, Shimon HaTzadik, who tells a story about a Nazarite from the south who came to him. This Nazarite had beautiful eyes and beautiful hair. Because the Nazarite does not cut his hair during the period of acceptance of this time, but afterwards, has to shave it all off, Shimon HaTzadik asks this man why he is accepting this and will then have to cut off his beautiful hair.

The man, this Nazarite who came from the south and never told his name, tells Shimon the Righteous, “I was a shepherd from my father in my city, and I went to take some water out of the well. In it, I saw my reflection, and just by seeing how beautiful I was, my Desire to Receive for the Self Alone became so strong that I felt it was going to destroy me.” The man had felt such an attachment to his beauty in that moment that something happened to him when he saw his reflection in the water, and he felt that unless he did something drastic, he would fall all the way down with his Desire to Receive for the Self Alone. Therefore, as he had this feeling and was looking at his reflection, this man said, “I told my Desire to Receive for the Self Alone, ‘How stupid it is of you to attach yourself to this beauty; it's not yours.’ And in that moment, I swore I was going to become a Nazarite and eventually shave my head.”

Just to review the chronology of this story, Shimon the Righteous meets this man and the man, who was a shepherd, tells him the story about why he became a Nazarite. All these details are important, because there are secrets within them. He was a shepherd for his father and his city, and when he goes to the well, he sees his beautiful image in the water and starts feeding his ego. His Desire to Receive for the Self Alone began awakening, and he yelled at his ego, "You idiot! You're attaching yourself to these things that have no lasting effect; eventually we'll all be eaten up by the ground.” But that wasn't enough. He realized he had to do something drastic, so he decided he would shave his head and take off all the beauty his ego was trying to tell him was his.

In this case, the man is talking about his hair, but this is the same story of the attachments that every single one of us has to whatever aspects our ego does the same thing to, whether it is wisdom, money, or anything else. This argument, this fight that is happening between this man and his ego, is the fight that goes on for every single one of us.

So, let's try to understand this story. If you read, for instance, Rashi’s commentary in the Gemara and Talmud, it seems like a very straightforward story. This man saw his hair as a great beauty and was afraid he was getting too attached to it, so decides he's going to shave it off. However, there's another commentator who goes on what seems to be a major tangent, taking this story somewhere else completely. He asks, why does it say that this man came from the south? He explains that the south represents wisdom, while the north represents money, and therefore, we often find people who are wealthy not to have wisdom, and those who have wisdom not to have wealth, because putting them both together is not an easy task. Therefore, it says he came from the south because it represents the fact that he is a very wise man.

Even though this man was very wise, he didn't become a teacher or a scholar, because he didn't want his ego to overtake him. He had some consciousness about the danger of his wisdom, and therefore, maintains his job as a shepherd for his father. He said, “Even though I have this wisdom, I'm going to remain a shepherd for my father,” but he then comes to see that not only does he have wisdom, he also has physical beauty. The ego wanted him to separate from the humility and pushing down of his ego that he had basically invested his entire life into, and it says that the ego tried to kill him. What does it mean kill him? Kabbalists teach that when a person acts with respect and gives to his parents, he merits receiving length of days.

So, this man was feeling that the ego was coming to tell him, “Enough lowering yourself to your father and your mother; now is the time for the world to know of your greatness.” And upon this, the man immediately realized that path would lead him to death, which would mean that all the merit of long life that he was building up through both the diminishing of his ego and the giving to his parents was going to be lost.

The battle here was that this man was a very wise man, and because he was spiritual, though he decided that he was going to subjugate himself to his father, and even though he was wiser than his father and had this great wisdom, he was not going to be known for his wisdom. But then when the ego saw that he also had this physical beauty, his hair, it tried to attack him again, telling him to leave the subjugation of his ego and reveal his wisdom to the world, to which he informs his ego, “I'm not going to let you kill me.”

Based on this teaching, hopefully we can really become excited about the opportunities given to us to diminish and subjugate our ego, so that we can say, “I'm so happy that this is the way my soul gets a diminishment of the ego, rather than something else.” If we can enjoy the diminishing, and certainly enjoy the Light, then there's nothing in life that can ever make us upset. It is one of the great gifts that we receive on this Shabbat.

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