It’s Not About You

Mendy Halberstam, Miami Beach, Florida
Essays 2019 / Personal Growth

It’s Not About You

It’s a misnomer: Applied Chassidus, or Practical Chassidus is one and the same thing. Is there really such a thing as Chassidus which is not practical, but is instead theoretical hypotheses regarding Hashem and spirituality? I think not. The Alter Rebbe wrote Tanya not for intellectuals, but to offer a helping hand, to provide practical, real life guidance to everyday Joes and Janes (or Nachmans and Nechamas, if you will). And you don’t have to take my word for it – this is in the Tanya’s mission statement itself.

In the introduction to Tanya, the Alter Rebbe writes that the purpose of his incredible effort in compiling the Tanya[1] was to provide the “answers to many questions posed continually by [all people] . . . so as to receive guidance for themselves in the service of G‑d.”[2] Indeed, the Alter Rebbe goes so far as to declare that Tanya represents the answer to “all questions” pertaining to spiritual and personal growth.[3] So, while others may have delved into theoretical debate and engaged in philosophical calisthenics, Chassidus, or Chabad Chassidus at least, is decidedly practical. That is, it is meant to guide each of us in the real world, and provide a basis for doing, thinking and feeling “right.”

So how does Chassidus do so? And what is the Alter Rebbe’s “recipe for success” for each of us as individuals? What makes Chassidus unique, and how can we live a more real, enriched, meaningful and, dare I say it, consequential life? That is my goal for this essay. We will focus below on a particular section in Tanya (Perakim 20-25), and, ultimately, a mere few lines in Tanya (the closing lines of Chapter 25), which, to me at least, encapsulates how the Alter Rebbe wanted us to see our world.

Movers and Shakers

Humans have an inherent need to grow, and this need has existed since time immemorial. In the words of our navi, “and I will give you Mehalchim‒those who move-among these‒Omdim who stand by.” [4] Chazal explain that “Mehalchim‒movers” are humans, who have the ability to grow, progress, build, and create. We can be contrasted with angels, which, while not passive, are “Omdim,” stationary. No matter how great an angel may be, no matter their fiery desire to be close to G-d, they are but stationary beings, confined to their post, unable to move or grow. The angels are what they always have been, and what they always will be. We, on the other hand, need not remain who we have been, nor are we condemned to remain who we are now. We can change and we can grow. This is why we feel angst, and it is why thousands of self-help books and seminars sell, and is certainly at least a part of why therapy is so popular, because we search for meaning, for the map that will guide us on a path to growth.[5]

The Alter Rebbe recognized this. And he understood that our soul, like a flame, is always flickering upward, aspiring to something greater than ourselves.[6] And if we are like a flame, if humans so badly wish to grow, to find meaning and significance, how can we do so? The answer is surprisingly simple.

Black and White

We all know the Tanya is called Sefer Shel Beinunim, the book of (or for) the “average” person. But, while the Beinuni sounds “average,” we know the Beinuni of Tanya is no slouch. According to the Alter Rebbe’s express definition of the term,[7] the Beinuni has never sinned, and, in his Beinuni state, never will sin. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like an Average Joe to me. That sounds almost like an angel.[8]

This apparent paradox between what the Beinuni is (not average at all)[9] and the fact that Tanya celebrates the Beinuni as the level each and every “average” person should aspire to,[10] does not go unnoticed. In Perakim 20 through 25 of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe systematically develops the answer to why we, people who studiously strive to become better, who yearn to be “more,” seem to so often fail in this effort. The answer lies in understanding the “how” of a Beinuni, now that we know what the Beinuni is. And, as we shall see, it is all about perspective.

To really understand the how of a Beinuni, we have to go back to the basics, to understanding the first two commandments of “Anochi Hashem Elokecha‒I am Hashem, your G-d” and “Lo Yihyeh Lecha‒you shall have none other besides me.” These two Mitzvos (the former representing all mandatory commandments, the latter representing all prohibitory injunctions) represent a single idea.

That idea is that we live in a binary world, a world of where everything is black and white. In every single second of our lives, each time we speak, each time we have a thought, and each time we take any action, these human expressions either manifest one’s subjugation to Hashem (i.e. bittul), an effort to become close to Him and do what He wants, or it is contrary to all that is good. That’s right: in the Alter Rebbe’s world, there is no middle ground, no “grey area” where something is “kind of” good or “kind of” bad. Indeed, it isn’t even about good and bad. It is about You or Him. Speaking more colloquially, it is the ultimate ultimatum: Hashem is asking: “Are you with Me or are you against Me.”[11]

If you are most important consideration in any given setting, then you will do what you want, and what makes you happy. That might even include you davening, learning, giving charity, and doing lots of other “good” things. But, you are not doing those things for G-d. You are doing them for you (because it makes you feel better about yourself). Therefore, you may do lots of other things which you prefer, but which are not necessarily in line with what Hashem had in mind. That, says the Alter Rebbe, is Avodah Zara – idolatry. Of course, you aren’t really bowing down to an idol (how outdated is that?!) but, conceptually, you are serving (avodah) “zara,” something foreign to Hashem. Because the problem with idol worship is what it represents: the notion that there is something “outside” of Hashem, something else which is at least as significant and important such that those “things” deserve our effort, attention, and devotion.

If you want to be close to Hashem, explains the Alter Rebbe, then in every single situation, literally in the minutia of day-to-day life, you only need to answer a simple question: is this thought, speech or action representative of what I want, or is it what Hashem wants. If the former, you’ve got work to do. If the latter, then choose this option accordingly and you’re well on your way toward living a meaningful life.

In the Alter Rebbe’s world, there is no neutral; nothing is Pareve. You are a Mehalech, which means you are never stationary. But a Mehalech can travel in both directions, not only forward. Therefore, with every decision you make through the day, you are either moving forward, or you fall backward. Every step you take is either bringing you closer to G-dliness, to something greater than yourself, or it represents self-centeredness. These two notions are not compatible.  And it takes something of a personal and societal paradigm shift to realize that self-help and self-improvement is most easily achieved when you remove your “self” from the equation.

It All Comes Down to This

Often in life we get bogged down, we’re in a state of inertia. We want to progress and grow, and we want so badly to do so, that we do nothing at all. For example, say you want to lose weight? You start a diet and change all your eating habits, throwing out half your pantry and spending a small fortune on an exercise regimen and a food plan. Three weeks later, the diet is gone, hundreds of dollars are down the drain, and you are no better off now than you were before you started. Indeed, you might be worse off, because now you feel depressed that you have not achieved your goal.

Or say you don’t learn very often; you are not Kovei’a Itim. You work for a living and you are exhausted at the end of the workday. But, it’s a new year and you decide that this year is the one you will begin to learn Chitas, Rambam, go to a class, learn a Sicha, or tackle some Gemarah or personal improvement project. You’re so inspired that you go zero to sixty: last year you never opened a sefer, but this year, you are a new person: you’re going to finish an entire 120-page Masechta Gemarah, or you’ll do Chitas and Rambam every day. You start strong, but two weeks in, you have a busy week at work, and you can’t keep the new commitments you made. You feel bad that you missed a week of learning, and you feel like you fell off the boat. Now, instead of jumping back on board, you knowingly disembark. Nice to know you, it was fun while it lasted.

Tafasta Meruba Lo Tafasta (don’t bite off more than you can chew).[12] Don’t have visions of grandeur. Don’t convince yourself you will be a perfect Tzaddik, such that if you can’t accomplish that you may as well be nothing at all.[13] You need not be a Tzaddik, according to the Alter Rebbe, you just need to be a Beinoni.[14] And to be a Beinoni, you just need to alter your perspective on who and what is important in life. The key is to retain this perspective on a micro-level, at the precise moment you are about to decide literally any course of action, regarding any issue in life, at any time.

So, the next time you want to share a juicy piece of gossip, stop yourself, just this once.  The next time you are too lazy to daven, stop yourself, just this once. Being a Beinoni is about micro decisions, made hundreds, even thousands of times per day. Each time, ask yourself the same question: is this call I am about to make going to make me better, is it going to serve a higher and more meaningful purpose, or not? Will this text message I am about to so casually send, inflict unnecessary hurt? If so, why not let me hold back, just this once. Because in small doses we can all do amazing things. We can all overcome our selfishness and base desires, just this once. After you do this a few times, you will become more mindful, you will realize that your actions, thoughts and speech are all more consequential, and you may find yourself asking: Do I really need to say that? Should I really be doing that? Can I just refocus and avoid the mental distraction, just this once?

In the Trenches

In truth, says the Alter Rebbe, to be a Beinuni, someone who has to fight the inclination to be selfish and instead be selfless, you have to internalize this message. You have to change your perspective. Change your focus from you, to Him. And every time you’re unsure of how to act or what to say, think to yourself: does what I am about to do or say serve that higher purpose or not?

And this message, says the Alter Rebbe is absolutely practical. It is the reason that the mitzvah of Shema was only given to the Jews as they were about to cross the Jordan into ancient Israel. Think about that: The Shema, which has been the rallying cry of Jews for millennia, the declaration of our faith shouted by countless martyrs as they were burned at the stake, tortured, abused, flayed or gassed alive,[15] this great mitzvah was not given to us in the Ten Commandments. It was not given to us at creation, not given to us right when we left Egypt and were born as a nation. It was not even shared with us for the forty years the Jews travelled in the desert. No, this mitzva was only given to us as we stood on the threshold of real life, as we were about to enter the world of hard knocks. As we were about to become practical Jews.

Standing as we were on the precipice of moving from a cloistered life in the desert‒where Manna fell from heaven, water flowed from Miriam’s well, and we had our every need addressed‒to the rough and tumble society of the Land of Canaan, Hashem wanted to give us a few choice words of advice. You want to live in the real world, He says, well, then, you ought to remember, hear, and internalize (“Shema”), the following message: Hashem is one. And that means, according to Chassidus, that Hashem is every where and is every thing, and is present every time we make a move, we just need to recognize it.

We need to realize that in every single situation in life, we make a decision: am I primary, or is Hashem primary? If everything is Hashem, if he is everywhere and imbues everything with life, then my next thought, speech, or action counts. How I next speak, think, and act has meaning, it is consequential. Because that next sentence I say, or that next business deal I make, if I do it in a manner that comports with Torah, then it has the ability to move me forward allows me to become holy by making myself subservient to Hashem, It allows me to demonstrate that this situation is part of G-d’s plan. Conversely, if I respond to a situation, or engage in a personal or business decision in a manner which may be more personally convenient but less compatible with Torah values, I am giving myself and my needs primacy over Torah, and thus firmly planting myself on the other side of the aisle from Hashem.

Reb Nissen

I once heard that Reb Nissen Nemanov, the famed Mashpia of Bronoy, France (renown by Chassidim as the “Beinuni of Tanya”) shared with a bar mitzvah boy how to be a Beinuni. Reb Nissen told this young 13 year old: “Control your thought, speech, and your actions for just thirty seconds.” When the boy complied, he said, “Now do this over and over and over again for thirty seconds, then another thirty seconds, and never stop.”

Rock Your World

It really isn’t complicated. We want to take big steps. To find meaning. To be happy. To make a difference. To count. We want it so badly, that we jump in at the deep end, and take on massive commitments to change the world. We want to change and grow, and we want it now. Some of us succeed with this method. Many fail. Because as soon as a person falls behind the boat, they begin to drown.

The Beinuni, great as that person may be, is not about splashy hachlatos, not about changing the world, about becoming a new person overnight. Instead, the Beinuni is about changing themselves–their world[16]‒one second at a time. Consider: Instead of promising to never lose your temper again, decide, just this once, just now, to take a deep breath and ignore the insult. Instead of doing that business deal which is ethically questionable, decide, just this once, to do it differently. Instead of forwarding that juicy and improper text message or social media posting because you want to see what response it will generate, hold back, just this one second, just this one time.

The Search for Meaning

The truth is, this same message of the Alter Rebbe was shared by the Rambam nearly one millennia ago, only using different terminology. In Hilchos Teshuva, Rambam implores each person to see the world, at every second of every day, as if it were evenly balanced, between the millions of incredible good deeds, and some of the unfortunate misdeeds of mankind. Your very next action, explains Rambam, or the next few words you share, can tip the scales, they can be consequential, on a cosmic level. If you do what Hashem wants, you tip the world to the good, to salvation. Or the contrary is true.

If this so simple, why do we live in an imperfect word? It’s all a matter of perspective. We do what we want, because we don’t recognize the consequences of our actions. In other words, we don’t typically see how or why it really “makes a difference” if we retweet that negative story or do something else we ought not to do.  We don’t see it, because we frequently are not paying attention. Hashem wants us to realize, on our own, how consequential our every thought, speech, and action is. And the bulk of Tanya is devoted to imparting this very message.

Spread the Love

The Tikunei Zohar asks: Eizehu Chassid? Who is a Chassid? Hamischasid Im Kono, which is interpreted as, “Im Kan Dilei.” A Chassid is the person who loves his creator and seeks to unite Hashem with (and demonstrate Hashem’s presence in) our imperfect world. He seeks to make Hashem primary and himself secondary.[17] And this exhibits itself in every interaction of the Chassid’s day and life. At every moment, the Chassid asks: does this help me to grow, and progress forward, to connect with Hashem? Or is this motivated by my own personal needs, my own selfish motives (even if they are not “bad” motives, they are simply not G-dly motives)?[18] Spread the love; be motivated by something other than yourself and your needs.

Be All That You Already Are

Contrary to popular belief, the Alter Rebbe did not expect transformation, and he makes that point clearly multiple times. Indeed, Tanya points out that although the heavenly court adjures a person, before they are born, “Be a Tzaddik,” this merely means one ought to strive to be as “Tzaddik-like” as one can be, since being perfectly righteous is something one is gifted with more than it is achieved.[19] Instead, what the Alter Rebbe expected – what he spent untold pages trying to convey, is that being a Beinuni is about changing your frame of reference, about changing your perspective from big-picture to small snapshot. So that instead of transforming yourself, you make each specific moment transformative. You do so by focusing on the details, on the trees of every life interaction, and the forest will build itself.

The Gemarah points out on the passuk Ki Siste Ishto: Ein adam over aveira ele im kein nichnas bo ruach shtus.[20] A person does not sin until a spirit of “shtus” takes hold of them. Shtus is not “foolishness” as the term is frequently translated. It certainly also means foolishness, but many people sin and not all of them are obvious fools. Shtus is a legal term, it is temporary insanity, temporary incapacity. Lacking sanity means lacking that which makes you a human. What makes you a human is your ability to think and to discern, the ability to do more than simply feel (as animals do). This is another way of saying, when you get a Ruach Shtus, you are controlled by emotion and not by logic. By desire, and not by cold, disinterested, objective truth. You are not using your intellect to control your emotions.[21] In short, we do things that Hashem does not want because we have lost, for but an instant, our ability to think and to discern, and we have become like animals, predatory, and instinctual, driven only be the desire for personal satisfaction.[22]

Heyos haguf bari veshalem, midarkei hashem hu: you need to be healthy yourself, mentally and physically, if you want to fight a successful battle with yourself, to develop and progress. If you want to develop, if you want to experience depth and meaning, it won’t happen by accident. Think, develop a plan, set small goals. Ask yourself how you can be a better you today, just for this hour, or even just for the next thirty seconds. And ask yourself if you are capable of putting yourself second for that one hour. Because as soon as you are willing to make Him primary, you’ve already won half the battle. You just need to rinse and repeat.

Zero Sum Game

We finished where we started. Chazal Tell us “tukfa d’gufa chulsha denishmasa.” The more you count, the more you are driven by your own materialism, your own needs and desires, chulsha denishamasa, this necessarily weakens your spiritual sensitivity. This is a zero sum game where only one side can win, and there are no participation trophies: it is either you or Hashem, it cannot be both. They key is to change your frame of reference from transforming the world, to transforming your world, and doing it in terms of seconds, minutes, and hours, instead of for life. In a world of 280 characters or less, it is easier than it sounds.

This is the epitome of Chassidus applied, because this is exactly what the Alter Rebbe says in explaining why only the generation about to enter Eretz Can’an, about to enter the “real world” needed the Mitzva of Shema: they needed a priority check. They needed to know what it means to serve Hashem and no other, on a practical level.

Personal challenges are unique. What one individual may struggle with may not even form a blip on the radar of another. And this is why Tanya’s lesson of the Shema, and its explication of Achdus Hashem as being the core message for personal growth, is so fundamental. This methodology can be applied to each person individually, to any vice, desire, shortcoming, or character flaw. Because no one need be condemned to the status quo. Each of of us can change, a little at a time. And we make this change by simply modifying our perspective, hundreds of times throughout each day, from person-centric to Hashem-centric. From asking how we can obtain what we need, to asking what we are needed for, and asking whether the proposed course of action in any given situation will help us reach that goal.

And, critically, this change in perspective (self-centeredness vs. negation of self in favor of Hashem) extends not only to “good and bad” outcomes as we classically understand those terms (i.e. holy vs. evil), but to ostensibly “value neutral” endeavors: an action ought to be undertaken only it if helps you move forward and helps to demonstrate Hashem’s primacy in your life. If the proposed course of action does not lead you there, but instead is something you selfishly want even if the action isn’t “bad” per se, you might want to reconsider.

Sweat The Small Stuff

In conclusion, if you feel disconnected and you want to recharge your batteries, start small: Take 15 minutes tomorrow and tell yourself that, in those 15 minutes, you don’t count. In those 15 minutes, everything will be about Hashem, or will be about others. Give those 15 minutes to daven better, to learn something, to think more deeply about the words you say instead of glossing over them, and use this time to be receptive and kinder to your spouse and your children. Make someone else, and something else, more important than you. If you start small, you can change the world.

[1] The Tanya if, after all, called Likkutei Amaratim, a collection of sayings, or teachings.

[2] Hakdamas HaMilaket

[3] Id.

[4] Zecharia 3:7.

[5] Indeed, this basic human need for meaning and depth lies at the root of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which is the framework behind his school of logotherapy, one of the core approaches to psychotherapy. Frankl posited that the effort to find meaning in life is the primary motivating force in humans.

[6] Mishlei 20:27. See also Tanya, Ch. 19.

[7] Tanya, Ch. 12. See also id. at Chapters 13-15.

[8] See Tanya Ch. 1 (discussing figurative uses of the terms Tzaddik, Rasha and Beinuni, and contrasting these figurative uses (“Shem Hamush’al”) with the precise descriptive definition (“Amitas Shem HaToar”).

[9] Tanya Ch. 12.

[10] Tanya Ch. 14.

[11] The Alter Rebbe makes this point directly in Perek Vav of Tanya, where he says that in every situation in life, one can either do what Hashem wants in that instance, or else one is “siding” with the Sitra Achara (which, quite literally, means the “other side.”

[12] Chagigah 17a.

[13] Indeed, Ch. 27 of Tanya explains that misplaced piety is actually a psychological ploy to stop people from advancing and developing. A person with an unrealistic view of themselves believes they must be perfect, and that anything less represents failure. This in turn, leads to depression (who likes missing their goals?), which, not surprisingly, leads one to lose motivation and give up on any form of self-improvement.

[14] Tanya Ch. 14.

[15] See Berachos 61b. The Gemara describes Rabbi Akiva’s murder by the Romans, where they tortured him to death, flaying off his skin with sharpened iron combs.  Rabbi Akiva spent his final moments on earth reciting Shema. His students asked him: “Our teacher, this far?!” He answered: Shema teaches us to love Hashem with all our souls), which I understood to mean “even if they are taking your soul.” My entire life I agonized over this verse: Would I really love Hashem even if my soul were being taken? I finally have the opportunity to demonstrate this. How could I not do so now? And Rabbi Akiva died with the word “Echad” on his lips.

[16] Olam Katan Zeh Ha’Adam. See Tanya Ch. 9. Mishna, Sanhedrin, 4:5.

[17] See Introduction to Tikunei Zohar 1b; Hayom Yom 14 Kislev.

[18] See Tanya Ch. 6.

[19] See Tanya Ch. 16 as well as Ch. 27. In the former chapter, the Alter Rebbe explains that true Tzaddikim are rare, and they are gifted that title. In the latter chapter, the Alter Rebbe denounces the falsely arrogant person who becomes depressed when they realize they are not perfect. The Alter Rebbe says one ought not expect perfection, one should merely keep true in the fight and not falter when the going gets tough.

[20] Sotah 3a.

[21] Tanya Ch. 12.

[22] Interestingly, the full passuk reads “Ki Sisteh Ishto Uma’alo Bo Ma’al”: The lack of faithfulness displayed by the Sotah is called Meilah, misappropriation, ostensibly an odd description of the actions of a Sotah. The Gemarah (Meilah 18a) explains that the crux of Meilah is the demonstration of personal dominion (and thus misappropriation) of something which belongs to someone else. In the case of Meilah of sacramental objects, this means one commits Meilah when they appropriate sacred property and use it for a personal purpose (thus exercising control over the item). According to Tosafos (id. at s.v. Ein Meilah Elah Shinui), the same is true of the Sotah who leaves behind her former role as a spouse (where she was part of a team and a single unit) and chooses to pursue an interest outside of this union and, by doing so, seeks to demonstrate her independence and to indulge her own selfish ends. This explanation by Tosafos neatly fits the frequent use in Chassidus of the Sotah analogy to the sinner: to sin is to make a statement (conceptually at least) that, as between man and Hashem, man feels more important, and more independent, such that one can give primacy to their own desires before that of G-d. This also represents veering from one path (being a partner with Hashem in fulfilling His mission for mankind) to another (one where man, not G-d, is at the center of the universe). This “veering” by a person to exercise their independence from Hashem is the essence of foolishness, since only a fool would allow themselves to sacrifice so much (eternity) for a temporary “reward.” See also Kuntres Uma’ayon, Maamar 1, Perek 1.