Reb Aharon of Karlin visited his rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch, as often as he could. Returning home from one such visit, Reb Aharon was besieged by a great crowd of friends and fellow Hasidim.
“Tell us what you have learned, Reb Aharon!” they cried. “Tell us what you have learned!”
When the crowd grew quiet, that all might hear what Reb Aharon would impart to them, he said, “I learned nothing.”
Not sure they understood him, his friends asked again, “What did you learn from the Maggid?”
Again Reb Aharon waited for silence. And again he said, “Nothing.”
Certain that Reb Aharon was denying them some great teaching, his friends said sarcastically, “So you bother to make these many trips to Mezritch so that you can learn nothing?”
“Exactly,” Reb Aharon replied. “I gained the knowledge that I am nothing.”
Who are you? This question is at the heart of the spiritual quest, and your answer to it determines the quality of your life. Reb Aharon learned who he was from the Maggid of Mezritch. “I am nothing.” But there is more to this than simple nihilism.
In Hebrew the word for “I” is ani. The word for “nothing” is ayn. Ayn is also one of the kabbalistic Names of God, as in Ayn Sof, the No-thing Without End. God is the No-thing that is all things. The kabbalists noticed that ani and ayn are both composed of the same three Hebrew letters: aleph, nun, and yud. When different words share the same letters, they are thought to share a deep unity. The only difference between ani and ayn, self and nothing, is the order of the letters. When the yud is at the end of the word, there is “I.” When the yud is in the middle of the word, there is “nothing.”
The yud stands for yadah, consciousness. When consciousness is focused outward, “I” emerges. When consciousness is focused inward, “God” is present. So who are you: the outer I or the inner Nothing? The answer is that you are both. The challenge is to see the Nothing in the other when you are ani; and the self in the Nothing when you are Ayn.
Dov Ber of Mezritch (1704 [?]-1772): Known as the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezritch, Dov Ber succeeded the Baal Shem Tov after the latter’s death and created the institution of rebbe, charismatic leaders of independent Hasidic communities.
Nothing: The Hebrew word for nothing, ayn, is also one of the kabbalistic names of God, Ayn, the No-thing that gives rise to all things. Reb Aharon is not simply making a claim for deep humility; he is also identifying with the One Who Is the many.