If you want to discover your eternal divine essence, you must learn to disengage your inner self from its outer trappings. In other words, you have to get in touch with yourself as a soul which is distinct from your persona, thoughts and feelings. The goal of disengaging the self from the outer trappings is to realize that you are not your thoughts, your emotions, your body, your money, your career or your property. These things are part of your outer persona, but they are not the inner essential you. You would still be you if you lost any of these things. Many people fear, however, that if they were stripped of these externals, then they would end up feeling like nothing.
There is a powerful story about Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, where Frankl describes how the Nazis would line up the Jews to select who would go to the gas chambers and who would go to the work camps. A Nazi commander would stand at the front of the line, holding up his hand by the elbow, and with one finger, he would simply point left, right, left, right. One man’s little finger determined whether a person would live or die.
Frankl was sent into a room with others, where they were ordered, “strip, take everything off and throw it into a pile in the center of the room within two minutes!” The Jewish prisoners frantically undressed and threw their clothes in the central pile, fearful of running out of time and being killed. At the end, all they were left with was their naked existence.
Frankl, however, stood still holding his manuscripts, which contained a lifetime of research. That little cache held everything that he had ever accomplished in his psychological research. Holding his life’s work, he approached the German officer and tried to explain that his possession was worth nothing to the Nazis. At first, the officer seemed to listen compassionately, but then yelled, “Throw it into the pile!” Frankl frantically persisted, “You don’t understand. This is my life’s work! It’s just meaningless paper to you.” But the Nazi just repeated, “Throw it into the pile!” Frankl obeyed the order. He, too, was left with only his naked existence. All he was is that he was.
Imagine the tragedy of his loss. But also imagine the potential spiritual growth that was available to those who went through such a challenge. Sometimes, very painful experiences offer us tremendous spiritual elevation. Frankl addresses this concept in his book, relating how many people in the concentration camps became remarkably spiritual. Those who were more religious and spiritually oriented, Frankl explains, lasted longer than those who had big physiques but lacked inner strength.
Frankl reports that after everyone had stripped the Nazis gave out concentration camp uniforms, which were previously worn by someone who had just died in a gas chamber. As Frankl put on the torn, dirty prison uniform, he reached into the pocket and found a tiny piece of paper. He took it out and saw that it was “the Shema,” the Jews’ daily declaration that G-d is the absolutely one and only reality. This little piece of a prayer book that another Jew had managed to keep was Frankl’s exchange for his collection of manuscripts. Frankl realized that when he gave up his life’s work, he got the Shema.
To me this means that when Frankl was stripped of his persona and left to confront his naked soul he was empowered to discover his true identity – identification with the source of all self worth—the One everlasting Self – G-d. And that connection no one can take away from you.
The goal of Torah is to set us free from the chains that bind us to transience and mortality. We need to reclaim our self –our individual “I” and redirect it to its source, the “Ultimate I.” When we do this, we experience the mystical meaning of the first prophetic words heard at Mt. Sinai 3,500 years ago: “I am” is G-d your Lord, who took you out of Egypt.” This is the true path to personal empowerment, spiritual liberation, inner peace and fulfillment.
Torah refers to G-d as the “Rock of our Lives.” In other words, we are truly strong and stable only when we anchor and ground ourselves within the One Universal Self –the bedrock of all consciousness. Each and every one of us is an individualized expression of G-d and serve as unique channels for divine presence into this world.
The secret to true happiness is a service-driven life; to embody and channel into the world G-d’s love, wisdom, understanding, kindness, justice, compassion, beauty, truth, peace, etc. When you act mercifully, you are serving to make manifest the source of all mercy. When you act intelligently, you are serving to make manifest the source of all intelligence. And when you serve justice, you are serving to make manifest the source of all justice. You experience the joy of ultimate meaning when you make your life a means to an end greater than yourself. But when you make your life the be all and end all then that is the end of a meaningful life.
Unfortunately, many people think “serving G-d” is submitting to an ego-maniacal deity who dwells in heaven and demands, “You must serve me! Obey my commandments and do them with a smile! Or else I will punish you.” In actuality, to serve G-d means to experience complete connection to the one “I am” — the context, source and soul of all life — and channel divine oneness and love into the world.
Life is not about collecting merit points to be cashed in after we die. Rather the reward of a service driven-life is the fabulous feeling of being plugged into the source of all life, intelligence, freedom and creativity. The big prize is to realize and experience the One Self –the make I contact.