Life is a Series of Rebirths

As I have written on other occasions, life is a series of rebirths. What we start out in life is often different from what we ultimately become. Let me tell you a well-known story that illustrates this point about the life of Moses. The origin of this story is unknown, but I have seen it mentioned in many books containing medieval rabbinic tales about the famous personalities of the Bible.

Here is how it begins . . .

The whole world was shaken and enthralled by the miracle of the Exodus. The name of Moses was on everyone’s lips. Tidings of the great miracle reached also the wise king of Arabistan. The king summoned to him his best painter and bade him go to Moses, to paint his portrait and bring it back to him. When the painter returned, the king gathered together all his sages, wise in physiognomy (the art of judging human character from facial features), and asked them to define by the portrait the character of Moses, his qualities, inclinations, habits, and the source of his miraculous power.

“King,” answered the sages, “this is the portrait of a man cruel, haughty, greedy of gain, possessed by desire for power, and by all the vices which exist in the world.” These words roused the king’s indignation. “How can it be possible,” he exclaimed, “that a man whose marvelous deeds ring through the whole world should be of such a kind?”

A dispute began between the painter and the sages. The painter affirmed that the portrait of Moses had been painted by him quite accurately, while the sages maintained that Moses’ character had been unerringly determined by them according to the portrait.

The wise king of Arabistan decided to verify which of the disputing parties was right, and he himself set off for the camp of Israel. At the first glance the king became convinced that the face of Moses had been faultlessly portrayed by the painter. On entering the tent of the man of God he knelt down, bowed to the ground, and told Moses of the dispute between the artist and the sages.

“At first, until I saw thy face,” said the king, “I thought it must be that the artist had painted thy image badly, for my sages are men very much experienced in the science of physiognomy. Now I am convinced that they are quite worthless men and that their wisdom is vain and worthless.”

“No,” answered Moses, “it is not so; both the painter and the physiognomists are men highly skilled, and both parties are right. Be it known to thee that all the vices of which the sages spoke have indeed been assigned to me by nature and perhaps to an even higher degree than was found by them from my portrait. But I struggled with my vices by long and intense efforts of the will and gradually overcame and transcended them within myself until all opposed to them became my second nature. And in this lies my greatest pride.”

The Moral of the Story

Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung refers to this moral evolutionary development leading to the wholeness of the psyche as “individuation.”[1] Spiritual growth is a lifelong process that seeks to bring about a whole and integrated personality.

At the core of our hopeful self-realization is the religious paradox of struggle and surrender to the Spirit of God that shapes us from within. Our souls inevitably surrender to the darkness and ambiguity of God who is portrayed as prodding the process of human individuation. What is true with Moses is no less true with the rest of us .

Think about it–our life is a spiritual journey, and what we start out as will in all likelihood be very different from what we now consider possible. Of course, our spiritual evolution is not a given; we must choose what kind of people we wish to be.

Jung argues that the process of individuation involves a lifelong process that seeks to bring about a whole, integrated human personality. The essence of this process is the establishment of a living relationship between the ego, as the center of the conscious personality, and the “Self,” i.e., the God-centered presence (Imago Dei–the “Image of God”) that is at the epicenter of the human personality.

From a spiritual perspective, Jung states that God is responsible for prodding the “Self” to actualize one’s own greatest potential in the quest for meaning and purpose, as each person meets and overcomes the various challenges that s/he faces in a lifetime. This new appreciation of the reality and wholeness of the psyche, which in turn makes possible a new paradigm of unity, can however, only be achieved by one individual at a time.

Development of the individual to maturity and fulfillment is marked by the progress of the ego when it becomes increasingly aware of its origin out of the larger, archetypal psyche (the Self) and the nature of its relationship to that phenomenon.

And now you know, the rest of the story . . . .


[1] Jung uses the term individuation to denote “the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘in-dividual,’ that is, a separate indivisible unity of ‘whole’” (Consciousness, Unconscious, and Individuation [CW 9i. par. 489]).

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