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What Is Ego?

What Is Ego?

. . . and is it kosher to keep just a little bit?


Are egos really as bad as they are made out to be?

The short answer:
Ego itself is not so bad. It’s just when you think you have an exclusive on it that the trouble begins. None of us have an exclusive. It’s more like a limited franchise.

The long answer:
The chassidic masters called it the ich and so did Freud. In English that’s “the I.” Talking about looking the I in the eye gets rather awkward, so we say ego instead.

”Ego.” Sounds so innocent and manageable, like a little pet you are trying to toilet train.

The mystics of many cultures teach how to surrender the I, to be washed away in the oneness of the Infinite Light where all sense of ego is meaningless. The moralists demand we at least diminish our sense of “I-ness” and start thinking about otherness. The primal failure of the Tree of Knowledge, Nachmanides writes, was this obsession with the “I”.

But the “I” is not something I have. It is me. Now this is scary: What will be with me if I lose my I? Do I really want less me? After all, who will take care of me if I’m not around? And how on earth am I expected to rewire that which is me myself, anyway?

The Master of I

The Maharal, (Rabbi Yehudah Lowe of Prague, 1512?-1609, philosopher-astronomer-kabbalist, famous as the one who created a golem) spoke a lot about this “I”. He demonstrated that the sages of the Mishnah were talking about it as well.

”Why was Adam created as a lone individual?” the sages ask. “To teach you that whoever sustains the life of a single human being is as though he sustained an entire world. And anyone who destroys the life of a single human being is as though he destroyed an entire world.”

”What sense does this make?” the Maharal asked. “Some will explain that just as the entire humankind extended from this one Adam, so each human being is potentially an entire world. But there is no real parallel here: Adam is the single root of all humankind. Another human being—if not for him, another will take his place.”

”Rather,” the Maharal continues, “every human being is an entire world. This is the experience of every human being since Adam and this is the truth according to Torah: Adam was created to be unique and singular in this world, just as G‑d is unique and singular above all. That’s why every human being sees himself as an entire world. And if he is, G‑d forbid, destroyed, that entire world goes down with him.”

This is also how the Maharal explains the Mishnah, “Every person is obligated to say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’” It’s true: In your world, you are the center and all else depends on you. The same in the other guy’s world. And In your world, you are the center. And your world is true. the other’s. And in all six billion plus of them. Each one is 100% right.

Personally, I wouldn’t be able to design such a world. Maybe you can figure out a way. Every model I can think of can only have one center. But then, I’m not G‑d. G‑d can make a reality where each individual is the exclusive center. And He did. Why? I suppose it’s all part of G‑d’s desire to be found within His world. Since a world is a place of multiple experiences, G‑d must be found within each one. G‑d is unique, so each individual must be unique. And G‑d is “the only one,” so each individual must experience this sensation of being “the only one.”

Go and ask us. We all have the same experience: there are six billion “us,” “them” and “you” out there; but only one “I”.

I wonder, if animals could create their own language, would they say, “I” and mean I alone?

The Private Eye

So what is this “I”? It is the experience of G‑d within us. Sounds nice, but in practice it gets very ugly, this experience of thinking you are G‑d and there is no other god beside you.

You’ve seen it in the two-year old who just discovered the word “NO!”. You’ve seen it in the “friend” who undermined you to get that promotion at work. In the boss who feels he must constantly remind you that you are but his employee. In the social worker who breeds dependence. In the megalomaniacs who hijack good causes to turn them into petty empires. And in the Machiavellian politicians who drive our society over the shoulder and into the mud because they never got past their second birthday.

”Pray for the peace of the government,” the above-mentioned sages of the Mishnah tell us. “If not for the fear of it, each person would swallow his fellow alive.”

Again the Maharal steps in to explain: “Each person, by innate nature, sees Each person, by innate nature, sees himself as the unique human being, with exclusive rights to all of reality himself as the unique human being, with exclusive rights to all of reality— just as Adam asserted his mastery over the entire world immediately upon opening his eyes. When a human being sees another human being with another ‘I’—which per force must diminish the dominion of his ‘I’—the instinctual response is to ‘swallow his fellow alive,’ to absorb this other ‘I’ within his own ego. The other is permitted to be a subject, an employee, a student, a fan—but never ever another ‘I’. Among the common people, it is only respect for a higher authority—‘the fear of the government’—that tempers somewhat their own ego and allows them to make room for others.”

The I Reframed

Something tells me there’s got to be another solution. After all, the I has some redeeming qualities, as well. For one thing, without the “I” there would be no personal decisions, no sense of free choice. Don’t we want a world with self-initiative, creativity and originality?

Furthermore: Without the “I” would there be indignation over inhuman atrocities? Would there be true sympathy for the lot of another human being? Would there be an idea of a “person”—a creature of inherent worth whose life cannot be measured in dollars and cents?

This, too, is the entire idea of the Adam as presented in Torah: Created in the “image of G‑d.” With those words, the Book of Genesis created the concept of a person, a concept that took humanity all these many thousands of years to adopt. Until today we live in a society that is finally beginning to assimilate the idea that each of us has “inalienable rights”—because each one of us is an entire world. Because each one of us, like G‑d, has the power to choose how “I” want “my” world to be.

The challenge: How to preserve all the power and beauty of this “I”—How do we preserve all the power and beauty of this “I” while disarming it of its ugly fallout? unadulterated, undiluted—while disarming it of its ugly fallout.

Fourteen generations from the Maharal, the Rebbe took over where his great-grandfather left off. The ego, the Rebbe taught, must not only be tempered, but re-framed. After all, everything was created for its Creator’s glory—and that includes the ego, as well.

This, too, the sages of the Mishnah taught. When Adam was created, he saw all the animals coming to worship him. They knew that someone had created them and it definitely wasn’t the monkeys or the elephants—because they all came in multiples. But this Adam creature, he looked the perfect candidate. Only one of him.

Adam scanned the bunch of them and said, “All of them were created only to serve me.” Sounds egocentric enough. But he didn’t stop there:

”And I,” he continued, “was created only to serve my Creator.”

The “I”—why was it created? To serve. To work within a context, which is it’s Creator. And that changes everything.

Why do I feel myself to be an “I”? Why do I feel that all lies within my domain as though I own the road, the sidewalk, the city and the countryside, too? Is it because there really is nothing besides me? Because I created it all?

That may work for the two-year old, but I’ve had sufficient experience to discover this world’s a tad too complicated for me to have created. If I am an I, it’s because the One Who did created all me and all this around me wants me to feel I-ness. And why?

So I can be G‑d’s proxy, and not just another creature.

So that when I take upon myself to do a mitzvah, to advance a worthy cause, to bring more light into this universe, I don’t do it just to get the job done, like a subject, like an employee. I do it with my “I”—I take ownership and make sure it’s done to its best.

So that when I see another human being is suffering, I don’t say, “That’s the way G‑d wants it to be and who am I to interfere?” I say, “This is not right. I must change it to make it right.”

So that when I look into the eyes of another, I see there not just blood, flesh and chromosomes. I see the Infinite Light itself, I see the very essence of G‑d breathing within those nostrils, I see Adam. Just like me.

And with all this, I can even have an inkling of what it means to be truly all that exists. To be G‑d.

The Halachic I

Like every other true idea, this reframed ego is reflected in halachah (Torah law). Or rather, as the Rebbe would put it, it’s this way in the world because it’s this way in halachah. As the Zohar says, “G‑d looked in the Torah and created the world.” Whatever is in the world can be found in it’s pristine, most clarified state in Torah law.

In Torah law, we have an idea of a shaliach—a proxy, in English. You can assign an agent to be your proxy for all sorts of things. You can even assign him to find a wife for you, give her a ring before two witnesses and you will be married to her. The rule is, “The agent of a person is as the person himself.” Whatever he does, he is not doing it —you are.

There are conditions on who can be your proxy. A child, an idiot or a deaf-mute who has no language will not do. Why not? Because to represent someone else’s I, you must have a pretty good one yourself. What comes out from the discussion in the Talmud is that these people do not have a fully developed sense of “I”, as in “I did this.” Otherwise known as da’at.

Do you get the paradox? The agent is saying, “I am not doing this. Whatever I am doing, it’s as though my client is doing it. I am transparent, not here.”

But to say that, to put aside his “I”, the agent himself must have a mature, well-developed sense of “I”. It is his I that empowers him to be not I.

The same with the human being, representative of the Creator on earth. The Creator is the true, only “I”. So He gave us our own little “I”s so we can represent him.

So we can take ownership of the situation down here and marry it to Him.


Starting to get the idea? Try these Meditations on Self and Ego

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous Lawrenceville June 3, 2016

Thank you Ego could be refined and relocated if it tends to bulwark internal progress. This redefinition is really not annhilation of a world, but a small gentle shift in order to expand though a bottleneck into a larger more sensible and intelligent universe. As they say in quad, there need to be more attributes than largeness only, otherwise the main casualty will be commonsense. Reply

Baskar Alvar Maniccam Toronto January 15, 2016

Choose wisely Our attention today becomes our reality tomorrow. Our environment does not decide our mental state. Our focus decides our mental state. Because our reality is a reflection of our thoughts and beliefs, the sustained state of our mind will, over time, create our environment. Happiness is a choice. Choose wisely. Reply

Anonymous Dallas July 12, 2014

Three I's If you had asked me when I was a child, "Who are you?" I would have thought it a silly question for the answer was right before your eyes: I am what you see. I am my body.
Years later that same question would have drawn a different response: "I think, therefore I am. I am my mind." That is the ego...the thinker...the mind that we have identified with.
I am an old man now. I have gone to the last stage--the last I, as it were. I am my soul. My soul is eternal and holy and inexplicably united with God. Reply

unimpressed bk August 18, 2012

um "The mystics of many cultures teach how to surrender the I, to be washed away in the oneness of the Infinite Light where all sense of ego is meaningless."

-Yeah, except those cultures and their mystics were all pagan. Need I remind what the Torah says about worshipping other gods? Reply

Anonymous Vancouver, B.C. Canada May 5, 2011

finding an unfluctuating way with my ego Is it kosher to keep a little bit of ego? I am a repository perhaps because of social conventions, or habit. I use a term I once heard and I think this is meaning 'open book'. Hence one gets projections given by therapists. Like me, still I am dependent on therapists, though they don't keep me emotionally well for G-d Alone can. I wish to ask how to keep good things in my pocket and keep a little big of ego. Thank you. Reply

David Austreng Yacolt, WA April 26, 2011

Ego We often discover that the less we feed the endless appetite of our egos, the more we avail ourselves to H-s proper format for human living.

The "I" then has purpose and meaning that is eternal in nature. The "I" can then begin to unify itself with the rest of the Universe, that with every breath, extols his Name.

As H-s light naturally brings shame to the arrogant "I", a vacuum can emerge and be filled with H-s ways - The way of loving kindness (Chesed).

Probably just babbling now, but I'm always amazed at your writings Tzvi. Thank you for being such an inspiration to my life and helping me find Rabbi Shmulik Greenberg who like you, is truly amazing.

May Hashem's light shine in you brightly... Reply

Norman Siller Kissimmee, Fl. March 30, 2009

I am I The above is the name of a book by Rabbi A. Twerski. Read it. Oh, and Lance S. His thoughts are not are thoughts. We can not comprehend why Hashem created us with the the ability to choose (his way over my way) as the Torah teaches "What does Hashem require of you?" To love the Lord your Gd,etc. So why ask why? We will know when we get close to him. With Maschiach. Reply

lance shepherd Sydney, Australia May 15, 2006

G_D HI, I have to ask, why is it thought G_D needs us to cocreate and experience himself thru us, if all is created by G_D this includes him knowing the experience of us knowing him, I find it an incredible statement that G_D knew what would already be written in the Bible, did he also know the Holocaust was going to happen, what did he need to experience that for, how can anyone state they KNOW what G_D needs, this clashs strongly with ilu yadativ hayisiv ("if I knew Him, I'd be Him"),
respectfully, Reply

Anonymous Santa Rosa, California/USA October 8, 2004

Enjoyed your article so much! You got me laughing and then instructed me on "ich", and "shaliach". I also thank you. When speaking of "shaliach" (a proxy), and the concept of being transparent, reminded me of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson's teaching in "Reasoning The Stone", (adapted my Yanki Tauber): That the letters of Torah literally pierced through the stone tables, "a complete hollow, bored front to back, every inch of stone was both the medium and substance of the letters". This kind of transparency reminds me of the "shaliach" for HaShem: To become living, walking Torah - 'taking ownership of the situation down here' by being that "shaliach" - bringing others to the knowledge of Torah and HaShem by our lives and 'marrying' them to Him.

Dovid Brilliant August 17, 2004

A brilliant, superb, and deeply profound essay - highly enlightening - thank you!! Reply

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