Essays 2020 / Finalists
Chassidic Tools for Self-Discovery
Introduction – Chassidus is the Compass
“Rebbe, what is a chassid?”
Replied the Rebbe: “A chassid is a lamplighter…”
Rabbi Sholom DovBer, the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe
Everyone has the same question, and so few people know where to look for the answer. For some, the question takes the form of a midlife crisis, usually after decades have been spent in the office, in traffic, paying bills, and finding enjoyment in short windows of time from sources of entertainment like movies, concerts or the occasional day at the beach. For others, it expresses itself in a series of fads and phases – the gothic period, the hippie days, stages of doing whatever it takes to fit in, or on the contrary, anything that will make you stand out. Some people milk the self-help industry for all it’s worth, and others travel to the ends of the earth to seek out spiritual gurus who can lead them on a quest to find themselves. For many of us, it’s a burning question that makes its voice heard almost constantly throughout our lives, barely letting us sleep at night. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you can probably relate to the subtle hum or incessant nagging of the question: who am I?
There’s nothing wrong with the question itself – the fact that we ask it reflects a deep-seated need for purpose, which is part of what differentiates human beings from all other living creatures.(1) The problem is that we tend to seek out the answer in all the wrong places. We may become especially confused because the question often disguises itself and sends us barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. For example, imagine how far off course I’ll be sent if I don’t recognize that my low self-worth, social anxiety, feelings of loneliness and depression, cravings for attention and approval from others, and the fact that I’ve changed my college major ten times are all spin-offs of this one uncomfortable question. I might seek my answer in gaining the most followers on social media, amassing material wealth and possessions, engaging in a series of romantic escapades, or in a variety of other increasingly desperate and sometimes even dangerous attempts to claim and declare my individuality. All these approaches have one thing in common – they tend to leave us feeling lost, empty and alone.
Ultimately, if my life is one big identity crisis, there isn’t much time left for living. In this essay, we’ll be using the model of the Rebbe Rashab’s “lamplighter” analogy as we aim to alleviate confusion about what makes us who we are and shed light on what we are all here in this world to accomplish.(2) Through exploring sources like the Tanya, the Books of Genesis and Exodus, concepts from selected chassidic stories and discourses, and more, we’ll begin to demonstrate how Chassidus empowers us to transcend ourselves and transform the world around us. We’ll leave off with a 3-step process by which we can reorient ourselves at any time to rediscover our inherent self-worth and purpose in life.
Since we’re all searching for ourselves, let’s treat this journey of self-discovery like a treasure hunt. In this scenario, this essay is the map. You are the treasure – the essence of your soul, your hidden potential, your unique mission in life. And Chassidus is the compass.
Your True North – Ignite the Soul
“The lamplighter walks the streets carrying a flame at the end of a pole. He knows that the flame is not his own. And he goes from lamp to lamp to set them alight.”
You’re probably familiar with the ancient Greek aphorism, “Know thyself.”(3) That’s what we’re all trying to do. In society, we are defined by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the size of our houses or the number of zeroes in our salary. Our personas are built on the genre of music we listen to, the sports we play, the hairstyles we choose. Are you a vegan or gluten-free? Do you prefer Marvel or DC? What events that took place in your past characterize the way you view yourself today? Even the roles we occupy in our social circles have a part to play in projecting a certain image of us to the rest of the world – we are parents, children, students, teachers, friends to some, enemies to others, and professionals of all kinds. The trouble is that all these things are external, fluid and subject to change. If these are the elements that constitute my identity today, what happens when I must confront a different reality tomorrow? With everything hanging in the balance, including our own sense of self, it’s no wonder that so many of us feel tremendous pressure to give off the impression that we know what we’re doing, while our myriads of insecurities cry out to us from beneath the surface.
You may ask, “But if these are not the things that make me who I am, what does?” That’s an excellent place to begin. Fortunately for us, the Alter Rebbe, Founder of Chabad Chassidus, revolutionized the way we define ourselves when he quoted a verse from the Book of Job (4) which describes the soul as “a part of G–d above”, and added a single word – “mamash” or “literally” – indicating that every soul is an actual part of G–d Himself.(5) This is our essential self, and this remains true regardless of what we may accomplish or fail to accomplish in our lifetime. Now we have something to work with, having discovered that there exists a part of ourselves that is constant and taintless, which itself is part of something greater than the self – the infinite G-d.
This point may be illustrated by a famous chassidic story:
When the Tzemach Tzedek, 3rd Lubavitcher Rebbe, was a child, he called out to his grandfather the Alter Rebbe, saying, “Zeide, Zeide!” meaning, “Grandfather, Grandfather!” The Alter Rebbe responded, “Where is Zeide?”
The child pointed to his grandfather’s head.
“This is the head,” The Alter Rebbe said. “This is not Zeide.”
The boy pointed to his grandfather’s heart, saying, “This is Zeide.”
“This is not Zeide, this is the heart.”
With every guess that followed, the Alter Rebbe responded that a limb of Zeide is not Zeide. The child thought about it until he came up with an idea. He walked over to the door and pretended that his fingers had gotten caught in the hinge. He cried out, “Zeide, Zeide!” The Alter Rebbe came to his aid, asking, “What happened, my son?”
The child smiled. “Aha! This is Zeide!” (6)
Through this playful interaction, the Alter Rebbe was teaching his grandson a fundamental lesson that we, as people, must take to heart – that we are not merely bodies that contain souls, but rather we are souls that possess bodies.
The question, “Where is Zeide?” may bring to our minds the famous words G-d posed to Adam after the latter ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – “Ayeka? Where are you?”(7) The All Knowing G-d surely knew where Adam was, so we can easily presume that the question is deeper than it appears at first glance. To understand this, let’s start by tracing the question of identity and purpose back to its origin in the Garden of Eden.
Before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they lived in a state of bliss. They saw all of Creation as unified and at one with G-d. They were fully aware of His presence, and the purpose for which He created them. They were perfectly in tune with their own potential as G-dly beings. They lived with a sense of wholeness and fulfillment, and knew nothing of the confusion and anxiety we grapple with today. But by eating the forbidden fruit, “their eyes were opened”.(8) G-d-consciousness devolved to self-consciousness, and for the first time in history, to be self-aware meant to perceive one’s own existence as an entity separate and independent from G-d. Thus, the ultimate existential crisis of mankind began, thereafter leaving no generation or culture untouched.
It was only after this collapse in man’s state of consciousness that G-d asked Adam, “Where are you?” G–d wasn’t asking about Adam’s physical location. Rather, the Alter Rebbe explained that we can understand this to be a perpetual call to every individual. “Ayeka? Where are you? What is the distance between where you are now, and where you have the potential to reach?”(9)
Sound a little familiar? How often do we wonder, “Where am I heading in life?” or a series of other questions we frequently ask ourselves that all stem from the same internal dilemma? “What’s the best path for me? Am I making the right choices? How can I be a better version of myself? What will finally make me happy? What makes life worth living?”
To alleviate our confusion, we must examine it at its root. What is the difference between the pre-Tree of Knowledge and post-Tree of Knowledge reality? Once upon a time, we were intrinsically aware that we are extensions of our Creator, and by virtue of this awareness, we never had to question our purpose. No thing is a thing for itself.(10) A watch is a watch because the watchmaker intended to create a means of telling tme. A car is a car because the one who made it wanted to get somewhere. The purpose of something is sourced in the intention of the one who created it, and the source of our identity crisis is the illusion that we are disconnected from our Creator. The point at which we divorce ourselves from our Maker is where we begin to feel depressed, anxious, lost and even worthless. If we only knew that so much of our human suffering would be relieved by simply connecting to our inherent source of self-worth as created beings with a G-d-given mission to accomplish.
By shifting our focus from “self” to “Source”, a whole new world opens itself to us. Moses knew this, and instead of abandoning himself to ruminate on his own self-doubt, he confronted his Creator at the burning bush and asked of Him, “Mi anochi? Who am I? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”(11) Or in other words, “What makes me worthy of the mission You are entrusting to me?”
Upon taking a closer look, we see that Moses’s question contains its own answer. “I am worthy of the mission because it is You who entrusted it to me.” G-d told Moses, “I will be with you,” which ultimately means, “You are My representative. I am making you My emissary. You will be an extension of Me, as My Voice and My Hands are extensions of Me.”(12)
By addressing our question of identity and purpose to the One who designed us, we have begun to move in the right direction.
Consider: What is my Creator’s intention in creating me?
Traversing the Desert or Lost at Sea – Illuminate Your Environment
“Rebbe, what if the lamp is in a desert?”
“Then one must go and light it. And when one lights a lamp in a desert, the desolation of the desert becomes visible. The barren wilderness will then be ashamed before the burning lamp.”
“And what if the lamp is at sea?”
“Then one must undress, dive into the sea, and go light the lamp.”
In the first book of the Torah, G-d told Abraham, “Go to yourself,” and leave everything he’d ever known, with the promise of, “the land that I will show you.”(13)
Viktor Frankl, one the world’s leading psychiatrists, wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how’.” The reverse, however, is also true: lacking the ‘why’ can make unbearable almost any ‘how’.(14)
A desert is an inhospitable environment because it lacks sufficient water to nourish and sustain life. Life, in comparison with existence, means to utilize one’s time, energy and resources to make existence count for something that matters. Do you spend most of your days living, or merely existing? When you look out at the world around you, or turn inward to the climate within you, do you see a desert or an oasis?(15) To transform barren terrain into a garden, or to turn my existence into a life, I must first be connected to the Source of Life, but that’s not all – I also need water.
The Torah is compared to water, as in the verse, “O all who thirst, come for water.”(16) Torah is the blueprint for life that G-d gifted to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. It’s the handbook or mission statement that we all know we need, but most often feel that we lack. At a deeper glance, we’ll find that the Torah contains layers of meaning and requires various levels of interpretation. Chassidus is a branch of the deepest, innermost aspect of the Torah – a guide for living life from the inside, out.
The Torah, through the lens of Chassidus, comes to teach us many foundational principles, among them, “the soul of man is a candle of G-d”(17), “a commandment is a candle and the Torah is light”(18), “a little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness”(19), and especially that when darkness is transformed into light, that light is greater than it could have ever been without having first emerged from a place of darkness.(20) What does this mean for us on a personal level?
Every soul descends from a spiritual paradise to be enclothed in a physical body and live in a material world. Everything about that scenario is contrary to the soul’s very essence. Not only that, but the Alter Rebbe tells us in his magnum opus, the Tanya, that we have not one, but two souls, and each one pursues the opposite of the other – the animal soul seeks physical pleasure and self-gratification, while the G-dly soul seeks spirituality and divinity.(21) Part of our job is to harness both inclinations and unite them toward a common goal that neither could achieve without the help of the other – to transform mundane into holy, darkness into light, barren wilderness into G-d’s garden.
How is this done? There are a variety of ways that all serve as parts of a greater whole. For example, the mitzvah of tzedakah, or the commandment to give charity, allows us to take money – which may otherwise be used for unholy purposes – and use it to fulfill G-d’s will and transform another person’s life for the good. Through the mitzvah of prayer, our mouths and faculty of speech are transformed into vehicles for G-dliness, when they could otherwise have been instruments of destruction, G-d forbid. By breaking bad habits, abstaining from unhealthy behaviors and resisting temptations, our most base desires become a basis for merit rather than remaining pitfalls. When we walk through our cities and towns smiling at strangers, sharing an uplifting word, taking every opportunity to do an act of kindness for another, we are actively engaged in watering G-d’s garden.
When we see ourselves in every situation as a lamplighter on a mission to illuminate the world, our lives take on a whole new meaning – whether I’m at work, in the grocery store, on jury duty, stuck in the airport with a delayed flight or a guest at somebody else’s dinner table, I’m there on a mission. And if I was sent, it must be that I was endowed with all the tools I need to accomplish it – these include my natural talents, acquired skills, past experiences and life lessons, strengths as well as weaknesses, advantages as well as shortcomings. With this approach, I elevate myself and my surroundings.
Consider: What opportunities and resources do I have for illuminating my environment?
X Marks the Spot – The Treasure Buried Within
“But Rebbe, I do not see the lamps!”
Answered the rebbe: “That is because you are not a lamplighter.”
“How does one become a lamplighter?”
“Start with yourself: cleanse yourself, refine yourself, and you will see the lamp within your fellow. When a person is himself coarse, G–d forbid, he sees coarseness; when a person is himself refined, he sees the refinement in others.”
The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, said that a soul may be sent down to endure the wear and tear of this world for the sole purpose of doing a favor for another person.(22) It could be as simple as feeding someone who is hungry, comforting someone who is sad, uplifting someone who is discouraged. A small gesture for you can be a life-changing experience for another.
Rabbi Akiva taught that the mitzvah of, “You shall love your fellow as yourself” is the main principle of the Torah.(23) And further, the Alter Rebbe wrote that the path to loving another like oneself is through placing emphasis on the soul as opposed to the body, because between bodies there are differences that divide us, but between souls there can only be connetion and unity.(24)
It isn’t hard to see how this shift in perspective and approach can completely transform our reltionships. Every person has their own inherent value, and every soul is ready and waiting to be ignited. Like a precious gem before it is hewn may appear to be nothing more than a rock, sometimes we need to chip away at the outer layers of ourselves to reveal the treasure buried within. When we do so, the essential good in others becomes more readily apparent. The more we access and identify with our own souls, the more we will see the divinity in our fellow.
A chassid is always ready to traverse the desert or set sail at sea if it means there will be a chance to light up the soul of another. Anyone can take on this mission, and every individual is uniquely positioned to accomplish it in their own way. May G–d grant each and every one of us abundant opportunities and everything we need to kindle souls and light up the world.
Consider: What can I do to light the lamps of others?
Summary and Practical Application
Step 1: From “Self” to “Source” –
Remember that you are inherently precious as a created being and endowed with a purpose as an extension of your Creator.
Step 2: From “Desert” to “Garden” –
Approach every situation as if you were dispatched for the sole purpose of illuminating your environment, transforming a barren wilderness into a prolific orchard.
Step 3: From “Being” to “Doing” –
Focus on the good and G-dliness within others and seek out ways to ignite their unique spark. Do all you can to kindle another person’s spirit.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe was once asked what his ambitions were as a Jewish leader. He answered, “What we call a candle is merely a piece of wax with a wick. When does it really become a candle? When a flame ignites the wick.”
The Rebbe continued, “The wax is the body of a human being, and the wick is the soul. When the flame of Divine wisdom ignites the soul, the person becomes complete. That is what I try to do—to ignite souls.”
“So, has the Rebbe lit my candle?”
“No,” answered the Rebbe with a smile, “But I have given you the match…”(25)
- The Power of Purpose by Steve Taylor Ph.D.
- The Lamplighter as told by the Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson
- An inscrip=on on the fron=spiece of the Temple of Delphi
- Job 31:2
- Tanya Chapter 2
- Otzar Sippurei Chabad, vol. 17, p. 291
- Genesis 3:9
- Genesis 3:7
- From the talks of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Shneerson on Yud Tes Kislev Chapter 6
- Can’t Life Have a Purpose Without G-d? By Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
- Exodus 3:11
- Who Am I? By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
- Genesis 12:1
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- Posi=vity Bias Chapter 1 by Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson
- Isaiah 55:1
- Proverbs 20:27
- Proverbs 6:23
- Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi
- Numerous sources in Chassidus
- Tanya Chapter 1
- From the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov
- From the teachings of Rabbi Akiva
- Tanya Chapter 32
- Spiritual Pyromania by Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson