Da’at: The Key to Emotional Freedom
MyLife Essay Contest 2016
“Elokai, neshama shenatata bi, tehorah hi” – “My G-d, the soul that you gave within me is pure.” G-d breathes this pure soul from His innermost being into us, and it is this pure soul that determines who we truly are in our essence. We are brought into the world in an untainted and pristine state of wholeness, serenity and complete joy. Naivety. Immaturity. Inexperienced. Unaware of what life has in store for us. We then start to stumble our way through life, involving all kinds of experiences, traumas and hardships which conceal the purity we have at the very essence of our being. How do we peel off the layers that we have grown to protect us from difficulties we have had to endure? Our soul, now concealed by many layers, cries out with a desire to simply shine through, even if it is just through the cracks.
After several countless attempts of searching for inner peace and clarity, I’ve come to believe that da’at is the key to returning back to our purest state and becoming aware of who we truly are, which is ultimately da’at-unity with G-d. Da’at in its simplest translation means knowledge, but not in its ordinary sense that we have been accustomed to understand, but in the sense of awareness and unification; in the ten sefirot, da’at is the mental faculty that follows Chochma-wisdom, and Binah– understanding. Da’at is where our ideas and concepts mature into corresponding emotions, after incorporating them into our way of life. It’s a process that we go through every time a thought comes into our mind. When we use our da’at in the correct way, it empowers us to:
- Control what we internalize into our being, resulting in refinement of character, emotions and actions
- Improve our ability to handle hardships and struggles
- Gain a deeper awareness of our true self, which is ultimately unification with G-d.
The first time I heard about the concept of da’at was 2 years ago at the last place I would ever have imagined myself to be – a cocoon of goodness, Bais Chana in Minnesota. Rabbi Manis Friedman was giving a class on intimacy and was explaining what true intimacy with a spouse is by means of the verse from Bereishit-Genesis: “and Adam knew (yada’ah) Eve” (yada’ah, originates from the same root as da’at). And for some reason, with the little knowledge (no pun intended) I had then, I was captivated by this phrase, even though I did not really comprehend its true beauty and how brilliantly profound a connotation it was (maybe it was G-d throwing in some of His foreshadow fun). At that moment my da’at endeavor began.
Since that moment, I’ve come to truly appreciate how fundamental using our da’at appropriately is in becoming aware of who we truly are. Da’at frees us from our ego, externalities and experiences, allowing us to reach beyond those façades and connect to something that transcends those masks we so comfortably hide behind. At the end of the day, our ego, externalities, experiences and what we struggle with are not who we are at our essence. Attaining the awareness that G-d breathed this pure soul from His innermost being into us, leads us to recognize our unity with Him once again, which in due course dissolves any external disguises.
Our da’at determines our desires, what we love, what we dislike, what we enjoy, what brings us pleasure, what upsets us, and so on. Da’at really becomes the most important faculty. It’s not sufficient to just know information without having internalized it into our mindset, our understanding, our journey. For example, a doctor knows that smoking is harmful to him, but still chooses to indulge in the habit. Why? He has no da’at in smoking, he didn’t integrate the information obtained through chochmah and binah that smoking will actually kill him. The concept and idea was just a theory external of himself, so no lasting transformation took place. If he actually understood the ramification of smoking, he wouldn’t go near a cigarette with a ten foot pole.
Just like Adam and Eve were unified, committed, and joined together, so too, whatever it is we’ve gathered from chochmah and binah we need to internalize and integrate. Doing so will change our emotions and subsequently, our actions. If we don’t use our da’at to navigate our emotions they run wild. The da’at pulls in the reigns and steers the emotions in the correct way. Once we understand that da’at can be used as a tool to guide and refine our thoughts, we are able to benefit from a much clearer and more refined through process, leading to an equally clear emotional frame of mind, and sense of self. Without using the faculty of da’at then, the emotions that are cultivated are just futile misconceptions. True emotions can only be experienced with da’at.
How often are we truly aware and present of what is habitual to us? Do we actually see the trees, while walking to the shop, while on the route taken many times before? Are we even aware at the supermarket that we made that snap judgement in our head about that person who didn’t offer us to go before them in the line, because, come on, I’m holding 3 items in my hand and you have a whole trolley full! These judgements cause us, even if just subconsciously, to have a certain feeling towards people that our natural and pure state could not even muster up if it tried. A lack of da’at finds us scrolling through Facebook aimlessly, eating mindlessly, offended because of what our “insensitive” friend or spouse said to us. Yes, the justifications we can come up with to rationalize can be SO creative. But, in truth, habits such as these are a means of escaping ourselves and merely just an avoidance of connecting to the eternal and boundless joy that we all have buried deep at our very core.
When we lack awareness, i.e. when we don’t have da’at, we are not in sync with ourselves, so we will try and fill that painful void with absent minded activities without any acknowledgement of the accompanying thought process. As soon as we can bring ourselves to a state of awareness, then we are able to be conscious of the thoughts flying through our head and, better yet, recognize certain thought patterns; we can then choose what we want to filter into our life, what we want to make a part of us and which path we wish to distance ourselves from.
Ultimately, this leads us to true joy and happiness because it brings us to a state of awareness of the present moment. We can only ever be in a true state of happiness if we are in the here and now. When we are aware, we are calmer within and can see the thoughts that come into our head and we can choose to let them go. The more we attain awareness, the more we can neutralize our negative thoughts and emotions.
There is a concept taught by Baal Shem Tov that the path to change has 3 steps  so let’s relate the concept of da’at to these steps:
Step 1: Surrender/Silence (ha-chna’ah)
This could be awareness of our thoughts, without judgement. Allowing them to come and go as they please, no resistance toward them involved. Same goes with an emotion, once we feel an emotion that we may not like, don’t run away from it, try shifting the outlook towards it, and see it as something that is “okay” to feel right now, and really allow the emotion to just be instead of pushing it away. Giving the emotion validation, which subsequently leads to a calmer mind.
We can practice this technique of awareness in any situation. It could be awareness of getting up from our chair, taking a walk and just observing the people passing by, the cars, the sky, trees. This step is very much to do with just being in the present moment and observing without judgement, and over time becomes something natural.
Step 2: Distinguishing (havdala)
Once we have a calmer and quieter mind, we are then able to differentiate between thoughts we would like to integrate into ourselves and thoughts that do not actually resonate with who we really are. We can begin to notice certain thought patterns we have which create a specific feeling that we may not be so comfortable with, and then trace it back to its source, and work on whatever it is that makes us feel uncomfortable, hurt, judged, or whatever the feeling may be.
Step 3: Sweetening/Rectifying (hamtaka)
Now, that we are more aware of who we really are we have the ability to become aware of our pure soul within, and are able to accomplish great things; the reason we are in this world. We become part of the bigger picture and are able to contribute from a comfortable, happy and joyful place.
A helpful technique to be used at this stage could be asking “What can I do to help or be there for someone else?” stepping into another person’s shoes for a short while, what is it that they need? Even if it is offering a passerby on your walk, a warm smile (come on, it completely makes your day when a stranger smiles at you). This is such a useful technique to apply when we are feeling really stuck in ourselves, really just down in the dumps and like nothing seems to be going right. It is instantaneously liberating to be able to get out of ourselves and do something to help someone else.
When we are living within this “free as a bird” type of place, where we are in sync with reality, ourselves, those around us, and where we are at our ultimate state of inner peace, happiness and boundless joy, we attain the ability to give of ourselves, what we are here to do. When we are in tune with ourselves we can accomplish true and wholesome things, give of our individuality to those around us, making a difference to the world, and the ultimate; a place where G-d is happy to be.
Footnotes and References
 Morning blessings and Tanya, Likutei Amarim Chapter 2
 See Tanya, Likutei Amarim Chapters 3, 42, 43, 46
 See Tanya, Likutei Amarim Chapters 3, 6 18, 39, 51, 53
 Genesis 4:1, and Tanya, Likutei Amarim Chapter 3
 Kesser Shemtov sections 28a, 28b 160