In India I learned to let go of my ego. Do you think any of these people cared about my job, my clothes, or what I own? Nobody was judging me based on those things. I had to learn to recognize within myself what is truly valuable. It is only by letting go of this ego that we can finally open up to true self-sacrifice for G-d.
We all have egos. In fact, most of us have very big egos. Sometimes our egos are so huge that they block out the “real” us.
When I went to India for the first time, it was the first time in my life that I really had to throw my ego away. Up until then, if you asked me who I was, I would say, “I am an attorney. I work in one of the best law firms in downtown Miami. I have an apartment and a car and two cats. I wear nice clothes and I use an iPhone and I like photography so I have a fancy camera.” Of course, all of that is ego speaking. But nobody ever pointed this out to me – I don’t even think anyone noticed. Why? Because everyone was speaking the same way. “My name is XYZ. I work for ABCorp. I just got a new car. Look at my nice new phone and my new laptop.” But wait… that person didn’t tell me anything about themselves except their name!
In India, none of that external stuff mattered. I was unemployed, so I didn’t have a job I could brag about. In fact, nobody cared whether I was an attorney or a street sweeper. I gave up my apartment and my car and have a friend (bless her) watching my cats, so none of that stuff is with me. In India, nobody gives two hoots if I’m wearing nice clothes or even if my clothes are dirty – I am lucky that I have clothes at all. And I lost my camera and my phone, so I couldn’t even fixate on either of those things. Heck, I didn’t even have my family or friends around, so I couldn’t even exercise ego by association. I had to strip all that away and come face to face with… myself.
Which is kind of what Avraham has to do in this week’s parsha. I heard in a shiur this week given by Rabbi Shmueli Feldman on one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s sichas all about it. This week Avraham is asked by G-d to go sacrifice Yitzchak (Isaac), his beloved son. The Talmud says that if it were not for this last one of Avraham’s 10 tests, then the first 9 would mean nothing. What on earth does this mean? Being thrown in a fiery furnace counts for nothing? Leaving your home and your world behind and venturing out into the unknown means nothing? The answer to all of these questions is the same: ego.
Up until now, Avraham could have been doing the mitzvot for himself, in one way or another. He stood to gain some benefit, even if it was just in being proved right. He didn’t have a lot of choice about being thrown in the furnace, for example, and he could have left home to travel just because he had a midlife crisis involving too much wanderlust. But being asked to sacrifice his son? Nobody could say that was selfish, nobody could say that was ego! It wasn’t just that he would have to sacrifice his son, when killing your own child is difficult enough, but it was that he would be sacrificing the child that G-d had told him would give him grandchildren. He was sacrificing generations as numerous as the stars in the sky. He was also flying in the face of everything he had spent the last 100 or so years teaching. He had taught that human sacrifices and child sacrifices were wrong. He had taught that murder is wrong. He had taught so much from the Torah that was the exact opposite of what he was about to do. So how could he possibly do it?
Avraham let go of his ego. Publicly, in a way that everyone could see, he showed that he was willing to do whatever G-d wanted, even if he did not understand it. Without arguments, without questions, without ego, he went to do G-d’s will. And when G-d made it clear that He did not want Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak after all, he complied with that, too. Avraham made it clear, in his thoughts, his speech, and his actions, that he was giving of himself. Self-sacrifice for G-d!
In India, you can't look around at daily life and remain self-absorbed. If the poverty doesn't touch you, there is really something wrong. This was my wakeup call to start letting go of my ego so I would have more room within me for G-d to dwell. Avraham teaches us just how important it is to let your ego go. Where your ego exists, G-d cannot be. There is only enough space for one or the other.
This is how we must be in our lives. If we strip away all those ego-driven externals, we can begin to see our true selves. We can begin to see that what really matters are the mitzvot (good deeds/commandments) that we do and the middot (good character traits) that we cultivate. How much more meaningful would it be, if you were able to introduce yourself saying, “Who am I? I help collect and deliver food to the poor. I play music to cheer up elderly and ill people. I enjoy learning Torah. I practice every day on controlling my anger and on being more patient. I am very busy all the time because I am trying to say tehillim (psalms) in my free time. I am working on smiling more, even at complete strangers.” Meeting someone and hearing that, you can really say, “Wow! This person sounds like a great person! I want to get to know them better. I want to spend more time with them.” The first examples, working in a fancy job, owning a nice house or car or phone, wearing fancy clothing… well, none of that really tells you anything about a person.
Avraham’s job in doing G-d’s will and taking his son as a sacrifice opened up the channels of self-sacrifice for us. We can tap into the heavenly gates he opened for us and take advantage of them. It is possible to let go of our own egos and dedicate ourselves to serving G-d. We don’t even have to travel to India to do it. We can do it right now, in our own lives. We only have to try.
And I’m learning as I go,
Don’t you know there are days when it hurts so bad
Everybody changes with a chance,
And I came around…
–Amie Miriello, “I Came Around”