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Parashat Chayei Sarah 5773 — 11/07/2012

Parashat Chayei Sarah 5773 — 11/07/2012

I am Avraham’s servant (24:34)

Moses, the servant of Hashem, died there in the land of Mo’av by the word of Hashem (Deut 34:5)

To serve Hashem correctly, one must divest himself of the ani (“I”). To be a proper parent, one must divest himself of the ani and think only of his child. To be a good spouse, one must divest himself of the ani. It all boils down to living for others and not for oneself.  After all, why would Hashem have created us merely to live for ourselves?  (Peninim on the Torah by R. A. L. Scheinbaum, 17th Series, page 36)

At the end of his life, Torah gives Moshe Rabbeinu the highest compliment a person can receive – he is called Hashem’s servant.  Similarly, Avraham’s servant, when introducing himself to Rivka’s family describes himself simply as “Abraham’s servant.”  In fact, Torah never identifies him by name at all; we have to turn to the Midrash to find out that he is Eliezer, who is the steward of Avraham’s estate and his foremost disciple (outside of Yitzchak).  What is the nature of this relationship between servant and master?

We generally have a negative view of servitude, generally associating it with “involuntary servitude” or slavery.  There is another kind of servant-master relationship however, which is prevalent in traditional cultures, but has largely fallen into disuse in the industrialized West, and this is the relationship between spiritual master and disciple.  Of course in the case of Moshe Rabbeinu, the Master was the Ultimate in spiritual knowledge; but even in the case of Eliezer we find someone who attached himself to and humbly served the greatest living source of spirituality of his time.

Some time ago we discussed the nature of the master-disciple relationship, and noted that the purpose of the relationship, and in particular the purpose of the service aspect of the relationship, is to allow the disciple gradually to attune his or her mind with the mind of the master.  The master, of course, has presumably expanded his mind to cosmic status, that is, his mind constantly and spontaneously lives with the awareness that it is, in its essential nature, infinite, while the individuality of that particular person is a superficial “shell” (k’lippah) in Kabbalistic terminology.

The infinite intelligence that is at the basis of the master’s mind is the same infinite intelligence that organizes all cosmic activity. Since there is no obstruction preventing that intelligence from manifesting itself in its purity in the outer life of the master, all the master’s activity is perfectly in accord with the needs of time and place.  In observing this behavior and attuning his own thinking and behavior to it, the disciple gradually expands his own mind and his own perception, until, hopefully, he rises to the level of the master (the case of Moshe Rabbeinu and Hashem is an obvious exception!). This process is described in the Chassidic story: A disciple goes to his Rebbe’s town to spend the holidays.  Upon his return a friend asks him what words of Torah he learned from the Rebbe.  He replied, “I didn’t go to hear words of Torah from the Rebbe.  I went to see how the Rebbe ties his shoelaces!”

Now there is a very important aspect of the service that the disciple renders to the master, without which no progress is possible.  The service has to be self-less.  The goal of serving the master is to take the disciple’s limited, finite mind, and allow it to expand to universal, infinite value.  What stands in the way of our living this level of life is our attachment to our individuality – our body, our senses and our mind – in a word, what we think of as our “self.”   Our goal is to cease identifying with these limited aspects of our self and to begin to identify with the unbounded aspect of ourselves.  In one sense then, serving the master self-less-ly is practice in breaking the identification with the finite self; once that identification is broken we can begin to identify with our unbounded Self.  In another sense, since we are trying to attune our minds to the master’s mind, we need to cease substituting our judgment, which is based on our finite mind, for the master’s judgment, which reflects the functioning of infinite, cosmic intelligence.  The tighter we hold onto our individuality, the harder it is to attain universality.

As is often the case, the technique that is used on the path of spiritual development is also a description of the goal.  The master has completely transcended his individuality; his “I” is no longer associated with his particular body, senses or mind – rather everything he does is completely selfless service of Gd.  The disciple has to work to achieve the same result, and the master provides challenges to loosen the disciple’s attachment to his individuality.

And if you are feeling a bit left out, because you have not apprenticed yourself to a spiritual master, do not fret.  Every one of us has the greatest spiritual Master available to us, and He provides each one of us with carefully calibrated challenges that force us constantly to re-evaluate who we are and what we are doing with our lives.  Not only that, He has provided us with a playbook full of techniques that allow us to grow and expand to universality, and a tradition that gives us an understanding of the playbook, how to use it properly.  All we have to do is to plug ourselves into this system and enjoy the results.