It once happened that one of the grandsons of Reb Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch fell into a deep funk. His friends came to lift his spirits.
“What can it be that is causing you this great sadness?” they asked.
“The alef-beis,” he replied.
“The alphabet?” they exclaimed. “We all learned the alef-beis when we were children, and we are not depressed because of it. What do you know that we do not?”
“Not the whole alphabet,” the young Hasid said, “just the first two letters, alef and beis.”
Seeing that his friends had no idea what he was talking about, he continued: “The alef stands for Anochi, the beis stands for bereshit, ‘in the beginning.’ Now do you see why I am so upset?”
His friends looked one to the other to see whether anyone had even the slightest inkling of what their friend was talking about. They finally returned their eyes to him and shrugged.
“This is what troubles me,” the boy said. “The ‘I’ is always ‘in the beginning’ of everything we do. Every beginning, every venture, is preceded by the ego and selfishness. How am I ever to act selflessly when all efforts are tainted from the beginning?”
Reb Menachem Mendel’s grandson finds himself in the classic double bind that is key to all spiritual awakening. He knows that only by surrendering the “I,” the self, can he experience God; and he knows that as long as it is the self that is doing the surrendering, no real surrender is possible. If the self is first, if “I” initiates everything, including surrender, then there is no escape from ego and no hope of experiencing God.
Yet, Torah opens with a very different picture of reality. The first words of Genesis are Bereshit bara Elohim, “In the beginning God created…” Here, God is clearly first. So who is right: the rebbe’s grandson or the Torah? There seems to be something true about both positions, yet they seem to be mutually exclusive. And that is the bind. The way out is to accept them both, which is what Torah does in a later passage: Anochi Adonai Elohecha, “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2).
Anochi, itself, is God! When you realize that God is all in all, then the true nature of the “I” is revealed, and the selfishness that arises from thinking you are other than God is no more. God and self are not mutually exclusive; self is simply one of the ways God is present in the world.
Alef-beis: The Hebrew alphabet.