There is a widespread problem that plagues humanity, leaving us lonely and disconnected. Many people live their lives in a state of ego – a state of mind in which people view themselves as isolated beings inside their own bodies, their own minds, their own worlds, alone and independent. The consequences of this state of mind are obvious: Since everyone else in the world is separate from us, we will feel disconnected from them; we will also likely feel the need to compete with them – to beat them – in order to gain self-worth, in order to convince ourselves that we’re good enough. This often means pushing others down just to feel like we’re better than them. We might even hate certain people or even go so far as to hurt them, because they don’t make us feel good or perhaps because they challenge our own self-worth. But most of all, this state of consciousness leaves us lonely, abandoned, and empty. (This state of ego also makes us feel independent and separate from Hashem, resulting in the ultimate feeling of spiritual emptiness.) However, there is another option.
Living As a Soul
Rather than succumbing to separation and isolation, we can choose to live in a state of soul, a state of oneness. This means living with the understanding that, while we are each unique individuals, at our spiritual and existential core we are all one. At root, we are an interconnected self, a single consciousness, with a single soul. This is the concept of klal Yisrael – a singular, unified self. The Rambam states that one who disconnects himself from the Jewish People has no portion in the World to Come (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, T’shuvah 3:6.). This is intuitive, though. Klal Yisrael is one entity, a single body, a single self. If a leaf falls from a tree, it withers; if a finger is detached from its body, it dies. If you remove yourself from your source of existence, you cease to exist.
We Don’t Experience This
However, it is clear that most people do not experience this state of oneness. We do not naturally perceive ourselves as part of a cosmic self. In fact, the starting point of every person’s state is ego and selfishness. Research has shown that children perceive themselves as the center of the universe and believe that they are all that exists. It is only with time that they come to realize that they are but one of billions of people existing in this world, each with his or her own unique life experience and inner world. However, many people cease their existential and experiential growth at that point. They don’t expand further, breaking down the boundaries of consciousness, realizing that they aren’t an isolated being but are rather a part of a bigger whole. They live the rest of their lives as an ego, alone, hollow inside. So, the question becomes: How do we break down the walls of our limited ego to expand our sense of self outwards? The key to this deep principle lies in understanding the gifts that the Jewish People donate toward the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
The Purpose of Gifts
The Torah describes the voluntary gifts that the Jewish People donate toward the building of the Mishkan, the place where Hashem was most potently manifest in the physical world. The emphasis of these donations is their voluntary nature: Hashem commands Moshe to collect from klal Yisrael “whatever their hearts inspire them to give.” Rashi explains that in addition to the required contribution (of machatzis ha’shekel), Hashem allowed them to give whatever they personally felt compelled to donate (Sh’mos 25:2). Why is this so? Why not specify a required amount? To answer this question, let us take a deeper look at the nature of giving.
We Only Love Ourselves
Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains that, naturally, we only love ourselves (Michtav MeiEliyahu, Kuntres HaChesed). This is not surprising, as each of us only experiences life from our own individual perspective. I can only know what I want, what I need, what I feel. It takes a lifetime of work to understand another person on this level and to be as committed to his/her needs as you are to your own. True love, however, is when someone else becomes an extension of your consciousness, when you feel that person’s needs and hopes and dreams as strongly as you do your own.
The “love” that most people experience does not compare to this ideal. Just think about the way we throw the word “love” around. Someone might say, “I love chicken,” but then turn around and say, “I love my wife.” Can these two experiences really be compared? When a person says that he loves chicken, does he really mean that he loves chicken? Of course not! If he loved chicken, it wouldn’t be dead on his plate. What he actually means is that he loves the way chicken makes him feel. It’s himself that he loves. The problem, though, is that too often when people speak of love, they are referring to this same kind of love. More often than not, when we say we love someone, we really mean that we love how that person makes us feel. If this is true, then what is true love, and how can we create it?
True love is absolute oneness. It’s when individual pieces connect in such a way that they create something transcendent, greater than the sum of the parts. The ideal is for man and wife to experience this oneness in their relationship. This ideal was modeled in the very creation of humanity: As the Midrash explains, Adam and Chavah were originally created as one androgynous being, a physical manifestation of a deeper existential oneness. They were then broken apart and forced to rebuild that original oneness. The ideal and goal that we must learn from this is clear: Each one of us must strive to build deep, existential oneness with our own life partner. Chazal add a layer of depth to this and explain that before a man and wife are born, they exist as a single neshamah. When they are born into this world, they are broken apart and exist as two distinct beings. The goal is to then travel the world in search of your soulmate, choose each other, and then rebuild that original oneness. Adam and Chavah are created as one before being split apart to model the oneness that we are striving toward as husband and wife. So, if at root we are one, but our natural experience in this world is twoness and multiplicity, then how do we both build and develop an awareness of this oneness?
How to Create Oneness
Rav Dessler explains that the mechanism for creating love and oneness is giving. The logic is as follows: We naturally love ourselves. We also find, though, that parents love their children. Why is this? It’s because children are an extension of their parents. We love anything that has a piece of ourselves in it, as we personally identify with it, seeing it as an extension of ourselves. This is why we find ourselves loving our ideas, our pets, and all the creative projects that we have spent countless hours working on. When we invest ourselves into something, we see a part of ourselves manifest within it, which naturally fosters our love for that object, person, or idea.
It’s interesting to observe that parents almost always love their children more than children love their parents. However, based on Rav Dessler’s explanation of love and giving, this makes perfect sense. Parents give an infinite amount of themselves to their children. Beyond just giving over their physical DNA, they devote endless time, energy, money, and care to their children. This is also why the Hebrew word for love is “ahavah.” The root of this word is “hav,” which means to give. Only when you give can you experience true love, true oneness. (At root, all oneness and connection already exist; we simply don’t experience it. The act of giving and expansion of self does not actually create connection; it reveals the deep oneness and connection that already exists at a root level, helping us become ever more aware of the true nature of reality. Thus, what we are doing, in fact, is creating a higher level of awareness.)
Oneness of the Mishkan: Paradigm of True Oneness
The theme of oneness is prevalent throughout the Mishkan. Rashi quotes the midrash, which says that the Menorah was not created by fusing separate pieces of gold together; rather, it was carved from a single block of gold (Sh’mos 25:31). This idea of oneness is prominent in many other parts of the Mishkan, as well. This is because the Mishkan (and Beis HaMikdash) is where the physical world connects to and fuses with the spiritual world. It is the focal point of Hashem’s connection to, and manifestation within, this world. It is the place where all of klal Yisrael come together to become one, first as a nation, and then with Hashem. The Menorah was created from a single block of gold, reflective of a much deeper idea. Just as the Menorah begins as a single block of gold before becoming manifest as branches and pieces, the Jewish People are a single soul at root expressed as a multitude of individuals.
Creating a Bond of Oneness with Hashem
The donation process of klal Yisrael exemplified this process of creating oneness and love. The Jewish People had to give of their own volition, to choose to donate their possessions to Hashem. This is because love and oneness can only be created and manifest through genuine giving. Hashem gave the Jewish People the opportunity to create a bond of oneness and love with Him. Only by giving themselves to Hashem – and recognizing Him as the source of their existence – could the Jewish People truly create this bond of love and oneness. It is therefore no coincidence that these donations were directed toward the building of the Mishkan, the very center of oneness, and the place where the Jewish People would connect directly to Hashem.
Think about your own life. Are you walled in? Are you afraid of being loved? Of loving others? Are you living as an ego or as a soul? Are you expanding outwards, giving yourself to others, or are you isolating yourself, living empty and alone? Let us be inspired to give ourselves to others, to build genuine love, and to endlessly expand beyond our limited sense of self into true oneness with our family, our friends, all of klal Yisrael, and ultimately, Hashem Himself.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.