There are times in life when we desperately want to help but are incapable of doing anything – when we see our loved ones suffering and are helpless to stop it. This feeling of complete powerlessness causes us great heartache.
Yet this powerlessness is more than just a source of pain. This experience of total impotency is the starting point of the religious life. It is here that religion becomes transformed into more than mere philosophy.

When we feel that matters are hopeless something breaks in the human ego and awakens the Divinity within us. It is from this position of extreme vulnerability that we discover faith, humility and compassion. It is from the place of powerlessness that we begin to pray.

A story is told in Zen Buddhism about an old priest with a high-ranking position in one of the big temples. Despite his standing, the priest was grieved that his spiritual eye had not opened. Therefore, he decided to go and study Zen under the great Master Hakuin.

Though most of his time was taken up by his duties in the temple, the priest managed to visit Hakuin every day for several years. Despite these daily visits, he experienced no spiritual awakening. So the priest went to Master Hakuin and said:

‘With such merciful instructions of yours, still I cannot see anything.’

Master Hakuin replied:

‘Don’t be discouraged so soon. Redouble your efforts and try for three more years. If at the end of the three years, you are still unable to arrive at anywhere, cut my head off!’

For the next three years, the old priest strove with all his might, but still nothing happened. He came back to Hakuin and declared:

“I cannot see anything.’

‘Can’t you!’ Master Hakuin answered. ‘It will be of no use even if you cut my head off. Try once and for all for three more months.’

Three months passed and still nothing happened. The priest then went to Hakuin with tears in his eyes and cried out:

‘You have given me such kind instructions, but still I cannot see anything due to my heavy karma.’

‘Nothing can be done now’, Hakuin answered him; ‘no use for you to live any longer.’

The priest bowed to Master Hakuin saying, ‘Thank you indeed for your kind teaching for these years. With death I will atone for wasting it.’

He then left the monastery and walked up the mountain path to the edge of a deep precipice. The view from the precipice was breathtaking. The priest sat down on a rock and looked out over the landscape. In so doing, he fell into a state of deep meditation, forgetting all about himself.

Hours went by, the night passed and the first rays of dawn broke through the eastern sky. Absent-mindedly, the priest stood up to cast himself into the void. Just as he was about to step off the cliff, the sun broke through the clouds. Suddenly, he felt as if electricity ran through his body and the darkness in his mind disappeared. [1]

The experience of our powerlessness brings us face to face with the emptiness inside us. It is in confronting our emptiness that our inner life begins. In this place of emptiness, we meet God. In this space of ayin or ‘Nothingness’, we discover our true Self.

There are two paths by which we can approach God. The first of these paths follows the model of the patriarch Abraham. The Midrash tells us that as a young man Abraham looked at the world around him and asked: ‘Mee barah aileh’ – ‘Who has created all this?’ In the end, this constant search for the world’s master led Abraham to a living encounter with God.

On the path of Abraham, we approach God by contemplating His greatness. Meditating on the beauty and order in the natural kingdom, a feeling of awe is aroused before the Lord of Creation. Reflecting on the intricate network of relationships in the chain of life, we perceive the underlying unity behind all of existence. For a brief moment, we reach beyond all external appearances and touch the great Cosmic Oneness that lies beneath our physical reality.

This is the first path – the path of Abraham. The second path follows the model of the patriarch Jacob. On this path, we approach God because we realize our own insignificance. We seek God because we have no other support left in this world.

When Jacob is returning home after twenty-one years in Padam Aran, he is met by messengers who tell him that his brother Esau is coming toward him with four hundred armed men. Jacob feels helpless before the armed might of his brother. This feeling of helplessness triggers an intense inner conflict in him that forces Jacob inward. This conflict is symbolized by his battle with the angel, wrestling all through the night. He struggles with his fears and his own mortality, and as the dawn arises, Jacob realizes the truth of his own essential Divinity and emerges with a new name and identity.

Thereafter, he will no longer be called Jacob but Yisrael or Israel, and all of his descendants will bear this name. Jacob calls the place of his great interior battle Peniel (Face of God) – for, he said, “I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:31).

Although there are individual Jews who have followed both the path of Jacob and the path of Abraham, it is the paradigm of Israel which has dominated the history of the Jewish people. The struggle with powerlessness has been intimately woven into our story. It has deeply influenced our practices and teachings, as well as the imagery and wisdom of our inner life. The Hebrew word Yisrael means one who wrestles with God, and such has been our destiny.  

Our powerlessness as slaves in Egypt formed the prelude to our liberation and the Divine revelation on Sinai. Hopelessness and despair were the keynotes of our exile among the nations for two thousand years. And it was after the Holocaust, the moment of our ultimate helplessness, that the State of Israel was born.

Powerlessness, however, is not an exclusively Jewish struggle. It is part of the reality of all humanity, and it plays an important role in other religions as well. Buddhism places special emphasis on recognizing the fleeting nature of this physical existence, and contemplating the truth of our own insignificance. Our impotency before the onset of sickness, old age and death is a central theme in Buddhism. As the Dhammapada tells us:

“A house of bones is this body, bones covered with flesh and with blood. Pride and hypocrisy dwell in this house and also old age and death.” [2]

The realization of our extreme vulnerability in the face of the great forces of life is also the subject of many teachings in Hinduism. One of Sri Ramakrishna’s favorite sayings was:

“God laughs on two occasions. He laughs when the physician says to the patient’s mother, ‘Don’t be afraid, mother; I shall certainly cure your boy.’

“God laughs, saying to Himself, ‘I am going to take his life, and this man says he will save it!’ The physician thinks he is the master, forgetting that God is the Master.

“God laughs again when two brothers divide their land with a string, saying to each other, ‘This side is mine and that side is yours.’

“He laughs and says to Himself, ‘the whole universe belongs to Me, but they say they own this portion or that portion.’” [3]

The experience of powerlessness strips away all of our defenses. It destroys all the fantasies that we have constructed about ourselves and about our lives. It tears down the superficial facades that we have created to support the comfortable illusion that ours is a “happy life”.

On the path of Abraham, we experience the underlying unity of Creation, but for most people that experience lasts only for a moment. It does not take long before we are drawn back under the spell of material consciousness again. The path of contemplating God’s greatness may lead us to a feeling of awe, but it leaves intact our false ideas about this worldly existence. Only the experience of powerlessness will blow apart this great illusion and pull us into the inner core of emptiness where we our true Self dwells. Abraham’s relationship with God begins with his search for the Creator, but it reaches its final culmination with the binding of Isaac – the shattering of the Akedah.

Early humanity’s defenselessness caused our ancestors to worship the gods of nature to appease their anger and gain their blessing. Later, trepidation before the many trials in life led our forefathers to seek out the assistance of a higher power through prayer and supplication. Today, awareness of our intrinsic human limitation serves to kindle a profound inner search within us. It forces us deep inside ourselves to discover who we are.

An encounter with powerlessness is a Divine gift that breaks the hold of our physical consciousness and brings us to union with our Boundless Eternal Source. On the path of Abraham, we experience the God that is all around us. On the path of Israel, we meet the God that lies within us all.


Copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick


Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, A flower does not Talk, p. 177-8
  2. Dhammapada, as translated by Juan Mascaro, p. 56
  3. ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, as translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 105-6