EGO – Everyone’s Greatest Obstacle by
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
Kol Nidre 5767/2006
The great comedian Milton Berle used to have a host of one-liners about ego’s and egotists. He’d say, “Put two egotists together and you’ve got a case of an I for an I.” 0r my favorite, “He’s always me-deep in conversation!” And then of course there’s the all-time conversation stopper:
“But enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?”
So here is a story about my own male ego at work. We were driving through Great Britain this summer on vacation and on one particular day we were in Scotland driving from Glascow to Oban and then to Fort William along one of the most beautiful driving routes I have ever seen in the world. It was admittedly a long day of driving and we had no reservations anywhere but were relying on spontaneously stopping and finding a nice room for the night. We figured wherever we found the right room that would be the town we visited next.
Well much to our chagrin, every town where we stopped was absolutely sold out – we tried ten different hotels and B&B’s and every single one was full. So what could we do but keep driving and keep asking. I had been driving (on the wrong side of the road of course) already for about 5 hours when we suddenly came upon one of the most stunning sights I have ever seen – some of you may have heard of it, and I happen to know that some of you have even stayed there - it is listed as one of the Relaix & Chateau’s greatest hotels in the world – called the Inverlochie Castle.
What a magnificent structure – an incredible property, unbelievable vista views of the forest, buffalo and deer and all manner of wildlife lazily walking across the rolling hills and breathtaking views that surround the castle. Well. “A” we were desperate, and “B” it was stunning, so we drove down the long and beautiful winding road up to the castle and when we arrived at the end of the road a man emerged from the massive front door - dressed in a tuxedo.
Do you have any rooms available for tonight? We asked? “Yes,” he answered, “we do have one small standard room left. Would you like to see it?” “Indeed,” I answered, and pulled the car into the expansive driveway in front of the castle and we went in to look.
Now you have to understand that Didi and I were on a casual driving trip so I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and when we stepped into the castle we immediately realized that every single male who worked there was wearing a Tux. And then we noticed that the living room was filled with men and women in long dresses and coats and ties, and even the little boys who were playing in the den (quietly and quite properly I might add) were dressed in little suits and ties.
You could almost hear a pin drop as we walked through the Castle on the way up stairs to look at the room. It was quieter than a library and much, much stuffier. Perhaps the single most pretentious atmosphere I have ever seen – but I admit, drop dead gorgeous for sure. With all the over-the-top opulence in full view, and the obsequious tuxedo-clad servants hovering over everyone, by the time we got up the stairs and down the long hallway to see the room my male ego was already on full testosterone throttle.
We saw the room – furnished tastefully, but by any standards it really was a “small standard room.” How much for tonight for this room? I asked. “$850.” He answered. “It includes breakfast, but dinner in the dining room is another $110 per person. And of course gentlemen must wear coats and ties.” He gazed at me for only a moment’s beat before adding, “We have both available in the cloak room should you need them.”
Ahh, ego, ego ego. Sometimes it’s weird being a boy. There was the guy in the tux telling me this outrageous amount of money for one night for what I would be getting - $1,100 for the night. And it was a small standard room. No way was it worth it. And I said YES.
Ego, ego, ego – I just didn’t want this nameless pretentious guy in a tuxedo to think I couldn’t afford it. So Didi had to step in and save me. She looked at me and then turned to him and said, “No, I really don’t want to stay here for that amount of money – it just is not worth the price. Period.” So I tucked my male ego between my legs, got back into the car and drove away. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
As it turns out we ultimately ended up staying that night in a fabulous stately home with a breathtaking view of the countryside at Inverness for less than half the price that included breakfast and dinner. But of course that’s not the point. My ego is the point. My pride is the point. Discovering in a blinding flash of embarrassment that at that moment I felt my self-worth being judged by my net-worth.
How easily I found myself caring about this nameless stranger in the tuxedo and what he might think of me and how his negative judgment of me and my relative wealth made me feel somehow less worthy as a person. Oh my God. Me! I’m the guy who stands up here year after year and gives sermons about this kind of thing. You know the ones I give – how Judaism teaches us that everyone is created in the Divine Image and therefore for over 4,000 years our tradition has insisted that every human being has fundamental self worth – just because we are human beings.
How many times over the years have I taught about tzelem elohim – the image of God? How many times have I preached or written my now famous spiritual mantra that what you say, what you do, and who you are really matters? What happened? Where did it all go? In a heartbeat I found myself reacting not as the adult I am but as the adolescent boy inside who as a child always felt like an outsider.
I was one of those boys who was never very good at sports as a child. I was always among the last one picked for teams of anything. I was the smallest kid in my class all the way into high school - always put at the very end of the class picture. And in spite of any so-called adult accomplishments I might have achieved since then, getting degrees, writing books, even being the Senior Rabbi of “the largest Reconstructionist congregation in the world,” if Didi hadn’t been there, the ten, or twelve or fifteen year old Stevie Reuben inside would have taken the room no matter how much it cost. Just to preserve my pride, my ego.
I have been thinking about this a lot, and I have decided that EGO, E-G-O ultimately stands for: Everyone’s Greatest Obstacle. Well, at least mine. It is an obstacle to our own wholeness, our own emotional sense of personal wellbeing. It is the obstacle of past hurts and feelings of inadequacy left over from early childhood traumas at home or on the playground or the classroom at school, or the destructive rejections of adolescence both real and imagined.
It’s like that famous Peanut’s cartoon where Lucy is apologizing to Charlie Brown: “Sorry I missed the fly ball manager – I thought I had it, but suddenly I remembered all the others that I’ve missed. The past got in my eyes!”
“The past got in my eyes.” How often for so many of us, does the past get in our eyes? That’s why we have been coming to these High Holy Day services for the past 3,000 years – in Jerusalem and Marrakesh, Vienna and Moscow, Florence and Madrid, Toronto and Los Angeles – Jews from all walks of life gather together each year to let the past get in our eyes. To find at least one real moment in the midst of all the prayers and music, the family and friends where we have the courage to see ourselves as we really are.
To weep for who we might have been. To cry for all the missed opportunities of what we might have done. And if we are lucky, and if we are brave, and if we are willing, we confront the million ways we hide each year behind the illusions and false bravado that we so skillfully erect to hold off our fears. EGO – E.G.O. – Everyone’s Greatest Obstacle.
We hide behind the walls and gates of ever-larger homes. We hide behind the frantic rushing to and fro of our so, so busy lives. Between shlepping kids to their over-programmed thousand and one daily activities or spending more hours working each week than at any time since before the industrial revolution, we are too busy and too exhausted to catch our breath and find the time for contemplation, spiritual direction, thinking deeply about the things that matter most in life.
And of course we are so totally wired up with cell phones and blackberries and the new, newer and newest technological miracles that we are too busy checking email, texting messages back and forth, and managing our constant anxiety that information is coming at us from all sides too fast and furious for us to ever catch up. So when do we stop? When do we take the time to think about what is important and not merely about what is urgent?
Now. Today. Here. This is the time. Shut down the Blackberry. Turn off the cell phone (at least until the end of Neila on Yom Kippur).
So stay right where you are – don’t rush off to drive anyone anywhere. Breathe deeply. Breathe slowly. And you will remember as you do every year at this time, what really is important in your life.
As Didi and I were coming home from our vacation in Great Britain, we got on our Virgin Atlantic flight in London and sat waiting for the plane to take off. After many minutes had passed in silence, the pilot finally came on the plane with an announcement that sent chills down my spine. He said, “I apologize for the delay but we will have to wait just a little longer. There were five passengers who checked their luggage but never got on the plane. So we’ll have to sit here for a few more minutes while the crew searches for their luggage and removes it from the plane. Then we will get right on our way.”
It was only a few days earlier that we had driven by Lockerbie Scotland – where 207 people had died when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up in the sky in the worst act of terrorism against citizens of the United States prior to 9/11. So you can imagine what instantly jumped into my mind. I couldn’t help imagining someone standing in the terminal with a button in his hand.
And at that instant, here is what I thought: “What if these are the last few moments of my life? What regrets do I have? What dreams will go unfulfilled? And what really matters to me most in my life?”
And so got up and put my arms around Didi and simply whispered, “I love you and am so grateful for having had you in my life.”
Thankfully the flight took off, the trip was uneventful, and here we are today with all of you. But the haunting questions remain: What if these were the last few moments of your life? What regrets would you have? What dreams will go unfulfilled? In the face of the ultimate the petty insecurities and fears that our ego’s hide behind disappear, and all of us ask, “What does really matter most in my life?”
So let me conclude by telling you a story about Victor Frankl, the remarkable founder of Logotherapy whose book The Search for Meaning was one of the most powerful and inspirational books of the 20 th century.
Frankl relates how he entered the Auschwitz concentration camp stripped of his status, his possessions, his clothes and most of all, his wife and children. He was left alone and naked and told to proceed to the next room for a shower. Throughout his ordeal, Frankl had kept with him always a copy of the manuscript of his 1 st book hidden in his coat. This manuscript meant everything to him. It was the only thing he had left now that mattered. And now he was being told that he would be killed if he tried to take anything with him into the next room. Frankl knew he had a choice to make, a terrible choice—to leave behind the only shred of meaning in his life or to forsake life altogether. Finally, Frankl decided to part with the manuscript and walked into the shower room.
After showering, he was given the worn out rags of a Jew who had not been so “lucky,” who had not been selected for work, who had already been sent to the gas chamber immediately after his arrival at Auschwitz . Devastated over the loss of his manuscript, Frankl slowly dressed in his new clothes, trying to accept the fact that the last element of meaning had been drained from his life.
As he dressed, he felt something in his shirt pocket. He reached in and found a small piece of paper with writing on it, and suddenly began to cry. For at the moment when it seemed that life had lost all meaning, here was new meaning, new hope, new purpose. For here, in the clothes of a dead man, he found what one Jew had chosen to take with him into death’s portals, what one person had carried to give meaning and purpose to the hell to which he had come. The piece of paper was a page from an old prayer book and on it were the words: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad!
It’s the ultimate antidote to EGO – the realization that we are not the center of the universe, but a part of a universe where we are eternally connected to everything in the world that renders life significant and worthwhile---or holy. That’s what the Shema teaches us – to listen. To listen not to our egos, not to our fears, not to our insecurities, not to our petty hurts and grievances and daily irritations. To listen to our hearts. To listen to our inner voice. To listen to that kol demama daka, that still, small voice within that always knows who we really are and what we have to do today and everyday to fulfill our own destiny in the year ahead.
So listen to your heart. Listen to your soul. Listen to the one question that perhaps can change your life in the most profound way possible in the year ahead – and here it is: “What is the question to which your life is the answer?” What is the question, to which your life is the answer? Discover that and life will have meaning beyond measure this year and every year.