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Ha’azinu: Deuteronomy 32:1 – 52

“The Chutzpah of the Separate Self”



Whether Jewish or not, most everyone knows this Hebrew/Yiddish word. The dictionary defines it as “unmitigated effrontery or impudence, gall, nerve, courage bordering on arrogance.”

Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch, one of the greatest Chasidic Master of 18th century Poland, known to his followers as the Maggid of Mezeritch (spiritual teacher, guide, or guru), had a much deeper understanding of the word. He wrote: “…you have even the tiniest bit of chutzpah, as long as you have any awareness of self…” According to him, “chutzpah” had everything to do with the false notion of a separate sense of self that keeps us from realizing our true Divine Nature. To him, that notion denies the very existence of God. If God is, then there cannot be a self. Nothing can exist separately from That which is everything.

These powerful words follow the opening paragraph in this segment of his writing: “There is divinity in everything, and that is what sustains all being. The core of life of every being comes from the connection it has to the Origin of Thought,” a most pointed way to name the Divine. He continues saying: “The foundation of the connection is that nothing exists without that life and that all of existence is nothing but that life, which is united to the Origin of Thought, in an indivisible unity.”
The Maggid connects this non-dualistic teaching to a commentary by Rashi on a deeply poetic verse in this week’s Torah Portion. “He encircled him, cared for him, kept him as the apple of his eye; rising like an eagle from its nest, hovering over its young. [Deut. 32:10b-11] Rashi wrote: “…hovers above them, touching them but not touching them…”

For Rabbi Dov Baer, all of us live in a permanent state of “noge’a v’lo noge’a – touching and not touching.” Not touching, when the false self asserts itself as an entity distinct from its Source, pretending to be “not attached and connected” to That which, moment to moment, gives it its being. Yet this “not touching” is an illusion, an impossibility, a caricature of a God that would lack omnipresence. Affirming such a possibility by simply believing we are such a self is, for the Maggid, the ultimate chutzpah. Touching, when the delusion of “not touching” is totally eradicated and we know our being to be inherently “attached and connected” to the Oneness of Being. This, the Chasidic masters called Bitul HaYesh, the annihilation of the illusorily disconnected self.

But this chutzpadik self of ours isn’t so easily going to submit to its “annihilation.” That which makes-believe it is reading these words and responds to your name will resist and fight, denying the truth of our sages’ teachings. Yet if “touching” or connection is what we seek, how do we break free from the illusion of “not touching” or disconnection?

The Maggid gives us a modality of practice embedded in the name he has for God; “Origin of Thought”: Thoughts are where the chutzpadik separate sense of self exists. It doesn’t exist anywhere else. Any notion of an “I” is only conjured up by thoughts. As we sit in meditation and observe the coming and going of thoughts, the stories of “I” get projected onto the screen of Consciousness. As we remain observing thought after thought, we eventually realize that “I” only exists inside an already thought thought. “I,” we find, cannot, therefore, be the thinker that thinks it.

And so, we ask: wherefrom, exactly, do thoughts arise then? Do they exist somewhere, outside of Consciousness, just waiting to pop in? And if “I” exists only inside a thought, who/what thinks it? You can’t, obviously, answer these questions with yet another thought. But you can let the Maggid’s practice lead you a little closer to “touching” Truth.