Relationships As The Vehicle For Divine Awareness

In a culture that focuses on the individual and frames success through our own skills, talents, and hard work, it is easy to forget that we are not meant to take this life journey alone. Letting in the reality that other people are central to our success and fulfillment in life goes beyond the reality that we are social animals – that we need other people for comfort, a sense of connection, and pleasant distractions. Instead, waking up in deeper ways to our inherent connection with other people is crucial not only to our personal growth, but to our ability to help build a world that reflects this Divine reality of interconnection.

In Judaism, it is profoundly significant that our core revelatory experience of God was not something for just an individual, but for an entire people, an entire community. In other religious traditions, the revelatory or Divine awakening experience happened to an individual – Jesus in the desert, Buddha under the Bodhi tree. But the experience of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, did not just happen to Moses, but to the entire Israelite community. The people “saw sounds” and “God spoke to them from the midst of the fire” (Deut. 4:12). While the midrash teaches that each person heard the Divine voice in their own way, they only experienced it while they were together in community. It is no accident that this core sacred scriptural story about Divine awakening is shared this way. The central message is that awakening to Divine Presence happens through our relationships with other people.

One way of understanding this teaching is by accepting the reality that we all view ourselves and the world through a limited perspective.At the beginning of the Exodus story, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, in Mitzrayim – a Hebrew word that means “narrow place.” The Hasidic spiritual masters interpret the story to refer to our own narrow or limited perspectives. Our growing out of our limited perspectives to become aware of a deeper connection to the Divine Presence is what yetziat Mitzrayim – the Exodus from Egypt story is all about. It’s our relationships with other people that are the best way to become aware of our limited perspective to transcend it.

Many of our difficult relationships, whether with spouse or family members, colleagues or community members, are difficult because we experience pain that comes from the place where our limitations meet the other person’s behavior or perspectives. Our tendency is to preserve our limited perspectives – to insist that there is no issue with our point of view, but the problem is with the other. In the Exodus story, the Pharaoh’s primary agenda is to preserve the status-quo, the reality of slavery. And that is also the function of the psychoanalytic “ego” – the organizing psychic structure of the human being that allows us to navigate the world as a separate self. However, if instead we approach the pain we experience with other people as an opportunity to challenge our own limited perspectives, then those difficult experiences become a chance to examine how our current point of view can keep us from deeper connection and relationship.

It may also seem obvious that learning or creating with other people are also opportunities to transcend our own limited perspectives. It was Moses’ father in law Yitro who counseled him to involve the elders of the community in helping to answer questions about the Divine Law as it was experienced at Mount Sinai. While this aspect of the story is commonly taught as a teaching of shared leadership to regulate energy output and avoid burnout, it can also be understood to teach that as great as a prophet that Moses was, other perspectives on the Divine Law were necessary for the community as well as Moses’s own understanding.

Finally, embracing our inherent connection with others serves not only to challenge or enlighten us, but also share our joys and burdens. We can more fully feel our joys in life when we can share it with others. For those of us who have had the opportunity to raise a child with another, there is nothing like having a partner to “kvell” about our child’s beauty or accomplishment. Seeing our pride and gratitude reflected in another magnifies the experience for ourselves. And, when we are grieving the loss of a loved one, or dealing with a difficult situation, knowing that there is another who sees our struggle, who can empathize – this gives us more strength to carry on.

This awareness of Divine Reality through relationships is counter-cultural. It goes against the prevailing cultural message that we need to take the journey alone, as individuals – that we don’t let others help because we don’t want to place our burdens on them. In our society, its individuals that are recognized and rewarded, not teams or groups. And yet, our investment in relationships, at the personal or communal levels are what will bring awareness of Divine Presence in the world for ourselves and for others.

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