“Human Doing”? Discover Your True Essence: a “Human Becoming”

Yochi Ress, Johannesburg, South Africa
Essays 2019 / Prayer

We live in an increasingly automated world. The machines have taken over to some extent, and the new emerging condition of “low-battery anxiety” (or its more fancy name “nomophobia”) refers to the immense stress when users are separated even from the shortest periods from their devices. (1)

The pandemic addiction of living constantly plugged into virtual worlds and social media platforms has brought about “Facebook Depression”(2) and the dire need for forms of “Digital Detox” (talk about a deeper appreciation for the healing power of Shabbos…)

This essay first seeks to understand the magnitude of this problem, then looks at examples of how Chassidus provides vital solutions to this crisis – both on mental and behavioral levels. It also highlights the focus of Chassidus on the practical integration between awareness of the mind and embodied feeling and action, with Tefillah having a central role in this, and the central concept of personal exile and redemption.

It then briefly explores parallels with recent findings in mindfulness and neuroscience research, and concludes with an example of some of the unique benefits and value of the perspective and practical implementation of Chassidus.

Chasing the dream? Depression, addiction and internal emptiness

I once heard someone describe the flourishing of the psychopharmacology industry by saying: “we used to be souls on the way to revelation, now we are brains on the way to the pharmacy”.

Consider how rampant both Depression and addiction are in our era of medical and technological advance. These are surely afflictions of the soul (interesting how “Psyche” means “Soul” in Greek…) and humans in today’s Western world clearly seem to be suffering from internal emptiness. (3)

A large part of what underpins a void within is too much of a focus (or even a fixation) on the external world – whether real or virtual. If one becomes habitually stuck in living in such an external world, in a mode of ‘automatic pilot’, one is at risk of living an empty life, devoid of meaning, connection, true inner growth and vulnerable, heartfelt living.

It is amazing to look at the research around the “Imposter Syndrome” where many of the most successful CEO’s and people who seem to have ‘made it’ according to the measuring stick of Western society and financial wealth, when interviewed revealed that they are actually a mess inside, not coping, falling apart, addicted and burnout and feeling like a fake.

The constant chasing of happiness through external measures of success has actually been proven scientifically to not work, and the real way of creating happiness is only through internal means and choices. There is a fairly recent revolution in Psychology called “Positive Psychology” which focuses on how we have the power to rewire ourselves into focusing somewhat on the good and developing gratitude.

There’s an interesting parallel here with The Rebbe’s teaching in Hayom Yom that Chassidim are ‘Day Workers’, focusing on the light and not dark, and how Chassidus in general speaks about the greater power of a small amount of light to dispel a large amount of darkness (4)

We are dealing with how free we really are. Freedom implies choice and choice implies awareness and being awake. (5) If we ‘sleepwalk’ through life on a very automatic and habitual mode, then we run the risk of being enslaved to the limited habits and/or false fears and judgments of our ego.

On the topic of judgments and ego, the Alter Rebbe (6) explains that our ego’s attachment to and judgment of what is good or bad for us is what occurred at the sin of the eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and is the root of all sin and impurity in the world.

To be free and access redemption (the mode of the Tree of Life…) means to be awake and that requires being able to disrupt our tendency to get caught up in habitual ruts and comfort zones. (7)

On this point, it is interesting to consider the evidence for how the traditional model of school/education inadequately prepares learners for future jobs (that do not even exist now!) in the light of what futurist Alvin Toffler said (drawing on Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy): “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

The power of Tefillah to keep us connected and awake

With this lens, we can appreciate some of the value of Tefillah – which Chassidus explains doesn’t mean “prayer”, as much as “connection” (8)

In Chassidus, Tefillah is the core of our spiritual path, the “spine” that holds together all the other “organs” of the body of Torah and Mitzvot (commandments, better translated as “connecting points/paths”)! (9)

Tefillah keeps us awake and free, because it starts our day with an anchor that can keep us rooted and grounded through awareness and connection, even amidst the tumultuous and turbulent waters of daily work ‘out there’.

We are able through Tefillah to connect with a) our purpose, b) the true reality of everything being Divine Energy, c) our Divine Essence which empowers us with all the resilience and powers/abilities we need to navigate any challenges that may come our way and d) connecting with others as well.

Let’s give a practical example to illustrate how fundamentally important this internal connection is.

Think of a fairly common scenario, a mother in the kitchen with a young toddler maybe 2 or 3 years old. The toddler knocks over a large jug of milk, creating a big mess.

There are two routes that this ‘event’ can unfold into.

  • Either the mother loses her composure (and sometimes dignity) and screams at the child. She may wound the child emotionally or verbally, or tragically sometimes even physically. She may endanger her own health through stress or a heart attack. Not very positive outcomes.
  • There is another way though – the mother calmly goes to fetch a towel and bonding with the child in a lovely educational/learning experience, teaches and shows the child how it is not the end of the world when we make a mess, this is how we clean it up.

These are absolutely radically opposite outcomes. What is the factor that determines which one will materialize?

Perhaps we can put it like this:

If the mother has an anchor and some stability/connection internally, then she does not need to rely on the outside world for her stability, it is generated from within.

If she has no stability and connection within, she is relying on the outside world for it always, and the first surprise or uncertainty outside will throw her completely off balance.

Microcosmic Exile – the blockage of the throat

When we talk about inner connection, we also need to realise how crucial it is for us to connect and integrate the different parts of our inner world. There are 3 dimensions of our being – our mind/intellect, our heart/ emotions and our body/liver (the most dense organ). If you take the first letter of each of these words in Hebrew it spells ‘Melech’ – ‘King’.

This implies that if we want to have Personal Mastery and freedom, there needs to be alignment, integration and congruency between these three levels of our being.

It is sometimes hard to connect emotion with action, but to bring down what we know rationally so that it becomes felt, embodied and real, is an even more difficult task. In many ways this is also a key focus of Tefillah as Chassidus sees it – bridging and connecting the mind and heart.

We allude to this at the end of every prayer service (and the Sages say that in the Talmud Brachot page 12a that “everything goes after the end”). The final prayer “Aleinu” quotes the verse from Deuteronomy chapter 4, verse 39: “And you shall know this day, and take it to your heart”.  It is significant that the word used here is knowledge – as Chassidus explains that this Soul faculty is all about connection and integration – as in the Torah’s use of the expression “And Adam knew Eve” (Genesis, chapter 4, verse 1).

The act of leaving Egypt is something we are commanded to do at all times and in every generation by the Sages– see the Alter Rebbe’s significant addition of the words ‘every day’ to the famous statement of the Sages in the Talmud at the beginning of chapter 47 in Tanya.

This motif is so central to Judaism that it is an overarching theme that runs throughout everything. It is the very first of the 10 commandments, it is the first of the 6 daily remembrances we conclude the whole prayer service with, it is mentioned in every Kiddush and virtually every Amidah on Shabbat and on all of our festivals. But how do you and me achieve this fundamental liberation? In our own personal life?

There is a powerful model and metaphor in Chassidus for the blockage or barrier between the mind and heart as the state of internal “Egypt” – which in Hebrew means “Constraints” or “Narrowing” or “Limitations”(10).  It is derived from a verse in Psalms chapter 69, verse 4 that says, “my throat is parched”. The term in Chassidus and Kaballah that is used is to describe this constricted state of consciousness is “Meitzar HaGaron” – literally the “blockage of the throat”.

The blockage of the throat refers to how despite knowing a truth mentally, it doesn’t filter down and find expression in feelings and action/behavior. (11) The word “Meitzar” shares the same root with “Mitzrayim” – Hebrew for “Egypt”. And the Hebrew for Pharaoh is the same letters as the Hebrew word for “back”, which alludes to the energy of Egypt being a blocking of the flow of consciousness from the head so that it doesn’t travel down into the heart (and from there to the rest of the body). Rather it gets diverted away towards the back – always a metaphor for the “other side” or evil.

Chassidus also illuminates in this way how Daas – Knowledge, is the hallmark of redemption (as described in the prophets as a time when “Knowledge of G-d will fill the earth as water fills the seabed…” and why the plagues in Egypt have this recurring theme of Pharaoh and the Egyptians coming to “know G-d”.

Another term for the block between mind and heart in Chassidic literature is the (human) level of “Makkif” meaning encompassing or surrounding, where there is a diffuse or vague awareness of something, but it is not integrated and tangibly felt – the function of Daas, which gives birth to the primary emotions of love and awe..

A central tenant of Chassidus is that the purpose of creation is to create a dwelling place for G-d in the lowest realms. This does not only mean in the external world – it means in fact first and foremost within our own microcosmic world (12), that we drive the Wisdom of the mind downwards so that it breaks through the blockage of the throat and reaches to our heart and even down to our very ankles.

In fact the Alter Rebbe explains that this is what the name Jacob embodies (signifying Israel – as his name was later changed to). The Hebrew word Jacob is a composite of the letter Yud – which represents Chochmah (Wisdom) and the word “Ekev” which means “Ankle”. (13)

Another way we can see this balance between the mind and action is in the structure of the ten commandments – the first 5 are spiritual, mental and consciousness-based, while the second 5 are practical and govern our interaction with our fellow person.

This concept of personal exile connects with the title of this essay – how we can reclaim our humanity and start being a ‘human being’ again at least, but even strive towards reaching the level of a ‘human becoming’ which is what we ideally she be.

In Chassidus, we are taught that a Soul in this physical world is called a “Journeyer” (in contradistinction to angels and even Souls above that are termed “stationary” or “standing” in relative terms). We are always meant to be growing, even if bit by bit. Trying to grow further wherever we can, leaving whatever previous levels we reached to break through to new levels of growth, awareness and connection.

What gets in the way of us being able to leave our personal Egypt is our Ego – that limiting shell we sometimes define ourselves, the smaller part of us that is usually fear-driven. The term given in Chassidus for this is “Klipah” or “Shell/husk” and is actually the term used to refer to all evil. This is also one of the reasons why Depression is considered worse than any sin in Chassidus, because it leads to inertia and stagnation/fossilizing… a lack of life and growth, which is the opposite of Holiness that is always fully alive.

Mindfulness and staying free and awake

It is fascinating to note the huge explosion of research and practise in recent years of Mindfulness. It has been shown to enhance health, growth, creativity, performance, resilience, happiness and many more important areas.

At the center of this practice is learning to transcend our ego and the self-imposed limitations of our habits and personality. This is done through building greater openness, humility, patience and awareness. It is almost learning to build an ability to step outside of ourselves, and see things with fresh eyes.

It opens up perspective and wisdom (other lenses that we are able to put on) and to become free from being hooked into our own judgments, desires and fears. This connects with what was previously brought by the Alter Rebbe that choosing what we believe is for our own good or bad is the source of all evil and sin in the world.

I find it absolutely exciting how we find such an explosion of interest in this field – something which further shows how closer we are reaching to the wellsprings of Chassidus reaching the outside – so much so that even the ‘outside’ starts talking a similar language…

Making it real in a practical way

I would like however to conclude with demonstrating the unique power of Chassidus to unlock a more real and conscious, free way of living, in a manner of personal redemption. And how we can see this on a practical level.

The example I want to focus on is the washing of the hands before bread or “Netilas Yadayim”. The interesting thing is that we don’t say in the blessing anything about actually ‘washing’ or even ‘cleaning’ of the hands, the word used means to ‘raise up’ the hands.

Several of the Rebbeim explain that what is happening here is that we are empowering ourselves to stay awake during a real ‘danger zone’ of eating bread – a symbol for food in general (and which in Hebrew shares the same root as the word for battle).

Because when eating, we naturally slip into satisfying our animal pleasures and become ‘unconscious’ to the real higher purpose of eating – to elevate the holy sparks embedded in the food and use the energy of the food to bring goodness and light into the world.

How do we stay awake then?

Through washing the fingers of the hands with water. The fingers are an even more narrow and restricted part of the body than the throat, and represent the end stage of the life-force that travels all the way from the head down into the detailed separateness of the nuanced activities that we engage with in the world. At that point – where the life force is separate from its source, we are prone to forgot the overarching intention of why we are doing the detailed things that we do.

So we first wash that end-stage part of our fingers with water. Contemplate water for a moment. No colour, no taste and no form of its own. It was there before anything was created – a very primordial level of Essence and Source (hence its ability to cleanse in a Mikva). And we make a blessing which is about raising the hands up to the Peyos (sideburns) as is the custom (and as is hinted to in the verse from Psalms chapter 134, verse 2 ‘Raise your hands up to the Holy’ – which is always a reference for the highest transcendent faculty of Chochmah (Wisdom).

This is to empower us with the consciousness of Chochmah (which is also humility through its closeness to G-d) and enabling us to then eat with fingers that are still connected to that Holy place of water and Wisdom. In other words to stay awake.

All the rest of the commandments and rituals we observe are designed to keep us connected to the true awareness of the Divine, always, as explained so powerfully in the heart of Tanya – chapter 32 (in Hebrew spelling the word heart).

May we all merit to live with personal and collective redemption – fully awake, and ensuring we live our Chassidus, throughout the depths and range of our being, not just in our heads!

Footnotes and Sources

  1. See article on the Wall Street Journal website wsj.com “Your Phone is Almost Out of Battery. Remain Calm. Call A Doctor.”
  2. For example Google “Facebook Depression” and glance at the first 3 articles.
  3. Leibel Gniwisch’s brilliant award-winning essay of last year brings the research by Brene Brown. In her TED talk, she shows the strong link between lack of meaning/connection and the resultant numbing of our vulnerability and addictions.
  4. For more on Positive Psychology, see the TED talk here of Prof. Shawn Achor from Harvard, one of the leading researchers in the field.
  5. Logotherapy, the psychology of Holocaust survivor and Psychiatrist Victor Frankl outlined in his famous book “Mans Search for Meaning” centers on our inherent freedom and power to choose our response – always, even in the most horrific circumstances. The Rebbe strongly encouraged and promoted, his work (see this fascinating story for more information).
  6. Torah Or, Mishpatim – page 79, fourth column – right at the end of the discourse “Lo Siheye Mechakeila”, the last 7 lines.
  7. In many places in Chassidus, it talks about the danger of automatic, dry observance as referred to in Yeshayahu, end of verse 13, chapter 29.
  8. See for example Torah Or from last week’s portion Teruma – bottom of second column and in the middle of the 3rd paragraph – same page as source number 5 above – page 79, fourth column but at the bottom not top of page.
  9. Likutei Torah, portion of Balak, on the words “Lo Hibit Aven Be’Yaakov”
  10. For example, see Torah Or, second discourse on the portion of Vaeira – “Lochen Emor el Bnei Yisroel”. It is interesting that the word Egypt and Jerusalem in Hebrew are in plural form – possibly suggesting that there are two planes of each – an external location, and an internal corresponding state of consciousness.
  11. See the beautiful and powerful teaching of the Slonimer Rebbe in his very popular book Nesivos Shalom on the verse “Righteousness, Righteousness shall you pursue” from Deuteronomy chapter 16, verse 20. He points out that the translator Onkelos translates Righteousness as “Truth”. Which then poses a perplexing problem of which two levels of truth exist – seemingly there is only one truth. And he explains there are in fact two dimensions of truth – a truth that is intellectual, and a truth that is real, felt and embodied… !
  12. For a great example of the maxim ‘dynamite comes in small packages’, see the tiny sicha in Likutei Sichos volume 38, 3rd one on Balak which covers this topic.
  13. See Torah Or, first discourse of the portion Vayeitze “Veshavti Beshalom” 8th line from the start.