(This is the continuation of a series exploring the nature of the human ego in the world’s religions and science, beginning with this post.)
In this post I’ll explore the sacrifice of ego or “self” in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, and how the transcendence of this “self” led one back to God.
Judaism has a lengthy tradition of sacrifice, of sacrificial offerings made to God, called korban. This traces back to the Israelites and Moses, particularly as outlined in the Book of Leviticus. The most common forms of sacrifice were of animals. It is said that God commanded the Israelites to make sacrifices or “offerings,” on altars designated for that purpose, usually in a sacred place such as the Tabernacle, or Temple.
But why? What was the purpose of the sacrifice? What did it do? What did it symbolize? The word korban comes from a root which means to “be near,” or “to approach.” The korban was a way of drawing the Israelites back towards God, closer to God, back into God’s Presence, of communing again with God. How did it do this?
It is thought that the sacrifices were a “sin offering” for the sins of Israel, a kind of purification offering. It was a means of atonement (at-one-ment) for Israel or an individual, to atone for their sins. The animal represented all types of sins committed by the people, and the sacrifice of these animals would make amends for those sins, it would expiate the sins. It would eliminate the guilt and consequences of Israel’s sins, thus purifying them of their iniquities and wickedness and drawing them closer to God’s Presence.
The sins of Israel were vicariously and metaphorically placed on the animals which were then ritualistically killed, sometimes by slaughter only, and sometimes by partial or complete burning by fire. This was thought to extinguish the sins from the Israelites, and make them pure again, able to return back to and commune with God. The ritual itself came to be seen as a form of communion with God, even an expression of thanks to God, or love of God.
So, in other words, the sins caused by the egos of Israel were being put to death so that Israel could return to God’s Presence. Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov notes this deeper personal spiritual meaning of the korban,
that we all need to sacrifice our animalistic nature on the altar of the heart. Through fiery and passionate love of G‑d, we can burn excess and indulgence and draw near to true service.
Wikipedia draws on this quote to note:
The korban also has a spiritual meaning, and refers to some part of an individual’s ego, which is given up as a sacrifice to God in honor of the mortality of the worshipper. In keeping with the root of the word, meaning to draw close, and to the common usage as the sacrifice of an animal, so too can the worshipper sacrifice something of this world in order to become closer to God.
So the korban represents a sacrifice of one’s ego, a surrendering of ego-self, in order to bring one into God’s Presence. This deeper meaning is echoed in various scriptures of the Tanakh, relating the animal sacrifice to personal inner sacrifice of self, of one’s inner “heart” and “spirit.”
For thou [God] desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)
Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word. He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine’s blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations. (Isaiah 66:1-3)
The Jews performed sacrifices of animals and other offerings as a symbolic or vicarious death of their own sinful “selves,” of their own egos, of their own “animalistic” natures, and in so doing the impurity would be “burned” out of their hearts through love so that they could draw nearer to God and enter the purity of God’s Presence.
The mystical schools within Judaism, such as Kabbalah, talk more about this ego sacrifice or self-sacrifice. One concept is known as devekut, meaning “clinging on” or closeness to God. Wikipedia notes that “It may refer to a deep, trance-like meditative state attained during Jewish prayer, Torah study, or when performing the 613 mitzvot.” In this state, one might experience bittul, or a self-nullification, a “losing all sense of ego entirely.” One definition is as follows:
Bitul is the spiritual state associated with the inner experience of chochmah, whereby one’s consciousness opens up to a continuous flow of Divine wisdom and new insight through one’s nullifying his sense of autonomous and self-sustained being. Bitul is the experience of ayin, of being nothing within the omnipresent radiance of God’s infinite light.
An encyclopedia of terms in Kabbalah defines it:
Bittul ha’metziut means “nullification of existence”… [it] occurs when a person experiences no sense of separate identity or subjective independent existence. The individual has been elevated permanently to a higher level of awareness in which he or she experiences absolute oneness with G-d.
Another form of bittul is described:
Bittul ha’yesh involves releasing the static “there is” way of conceptualizing existence, which results in an annihilation of the egoic self, as well as desires rooted solely in the lower aspects of personality.
The idea of a sacrifice of self became more explicit in the teachings and events that emerged around Jesus, himself a devout Jew. Jesus became the sacrificial “Lamb of God,” whose human blood would be shed for humanity’s sins.
It was likewise a vicarious sacrifice. In Christianity it is taught that Jesus bled, atoned, and gave his life for sinful people, to expiate their sins for them, eliminate the guilt and stain of those sins, which was understood would make them pure again to enter into God’s Presence. Jesus made the korban sacrifice more explicitly a human sacrifice, even a sacrifice of his own self, his own ego, his own life. But again, it was not a sacrifice of the people directly, but all the sins of the people were vicariously and metaphorically put upon the head of Jesus, like the sacrificial animals, who then became the single sacrifice for all people.
There are many New Testament scriptures which refer to this:
For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:28)
The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)
For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us… (1 Cor. 5:7)
So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many… (Hebrews 9:28)
By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God… For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. (Hebrews 10:10-12, 14)
The crucifixion was the ultimate sacrifice of self, Jesus sacrificing his human life for the sins of the people. Jesus’s sacrifice and atonement are said to expunge humanity’s sins, absolving them of suffering for those sins, and bring them back into God’s Presence, if they would follow him and his teachings. But what were those teachings? In large part they were to become like him, and do as he did.
The crucifixion seemed to take on a more symbolic role in the years after Jesus’s death, something that early Christians experienced in their own lives while they lived. Following Jesus’s teachings of loving God and loving one’s neighbor was not enough. The Christian was to become like Jesus, and realize Christ in them. They too were expected to take up their cross and undergo a “crucifixion.” The Apostle Paul confessed:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me… (Galatians 2:20)
Paul realized that his egoic self had been “crucified” like Jesus had been crucified, and that he (his ego) no longer lived. “Paul” was dead. Rather, he found that it was Christ that lived in him. He identified his deeper Living Self as Christ.
Jesus seems to have been the epitome of the kind of life that he hoped all people would live, and that they would all be like him, sacrificing their own egoic selves, so as to realize Christ in them, emptying their “selves” (kenosis) in love towards others, and in so doing they would realize they were “one” in Christ, and also “one” in God (John 17).
It does not seem to me that Jesus suffered once and for all for humanity’s sins, but taught and gave the example of the kind of living and suffering that all people go through to sacrifice their egoic selves, to surrender their egos, and through that self-sacrifice process realize their oneness in God, their at-one-ment in God, exactly the same as Jesus did. Once that Oneness is realized, the One that suffers is realized as All who suffer. It is not a single person or individual that is sacrificed for all people, but All individuals, All “selves,” All egos, are sacrificed so that the people may realize they are One and the same higher Self, one Being, one Body, one Life, one Truth, which Christians call “Christ.”
And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. (Romans 8:17)
And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. (1 Cor. 12:26-27)
For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ… And our hope of you is steadfast, knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation. (2 Cor. 1:5)
But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. (1 Peter 4:13)
Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. (Rev. 2:10)
The Christian was to “die” to their egoic self, some suffering intense trials and tribulations in that “death” process, and if faithful they would thereafter realize a crown of eternal life, joy, consolation, and glory in “Christ.” And this could happen during life. Jesus’s words seem to directly speak of this:
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:24-25; cf. Mark 8:34-35)
Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will [my ego], but thine, be done. (Luke 22:42)
Jesus taught that his followers should deny their egoic “self,” take up their cross like him (sufferings), and follow Jesus (do as he did). Through this process one loses their life (suffers a death or “crucifixion” of their egoic self), and finds their true Life (Christ). The “old creature” is dead, and the “new creature” lives “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17). They have surrendered their egoic selfish will to allow the Cosmic Communal Loving will of Life to reign.
Christ was a title given to Jesus, meaning “Anointed One,” referring to one who has so found their True Nature, their True Self, their True Life. The Christian was to realize they too were Christ, both a part of Christ yet also fully Christ, a member yet an absolute required member of the Body of Christ without which the Body would not be the Body, a “little Christ” as C.S. Lewis once called it, and in so realizing, they too would be One in God (John 17).
In the next post I’ll describe ego sacrifice or loss of “self” in Hinduism and Buddhism.
(Next post in series: The Falling Away of Ego Consciousness in Hinduism and Buddhism)