Jungle or Garden?

By Talya Portnoy
Essays 2017

MyLife Essay Contest 2017

We are living in a time where man desires an inner peace which will extend into every area of his/her life. People are constantly searching for self-contentment, for tips on overcoming challenging times, and for a purpose in life. A study which was done on college students showed how seventy six percent of college students “are searching for meaning and purpose in their life.” [1] People from different religions and ways of life, are searching for the answer. Jewish people, specifically, are looking outside of their culture, outside of their religion, outside of themselves for the answer. They are searching in foreign places trying to find the key: a. the key to themselves, b. the key to happiness, and c. the key to a purpose. Yet, they are missing the fundamental understanding of who they truly are. As the Jewish nation, we have the answer; The Chassidic book called the Tanya, addresses all of these issues in an organized fashion. Before learning how to deal with external challenges, one must know who he/she truly is. Before uncovering inner happiness, one must know his/her destiny. The Alter Rebbe, the author of the Tanya, explains to every Jew how he/she can overcome these three challenges by beginning to look within.

There is a universal desire amongst mankind: to lead a meaningful life through helping others and making the world a better place. More than that, people crave truth. People turn to different philosophies craving spirituality. People learn different ideas craving an inner peace that will not be overturned through life’s tribulations. People desire a self-contentment that will remain, despite external circumstances. Yet, it is a mystery one will always try to solve. It is a battle a Jew will always fight until he/she turns inwards. It is a fight a Jew will always battle until he/she returns to the truth of who he/she is.

In the second chapter of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe defines what a Jew is: an actual part of G-d! G-d created the first man, Adam, through blowing. Blowing is an act which comes from one’s essence. By blowing the first man into being, it connected every Jew to G-d in the innermost, unbreakable way. (The Arizal explains that before Adam sinned with the Tree of Knowledge, only Jewish souls existed. Therefore, it is understood how every Jew is connected to G-d in the deepest way.) The Alter Rebbe then goes on to explain the inner make up of a Jew from chapter three until chapter ten. He describes to us how we have two souls: a G-dly soul and an Animal soul, whom both want control over the body. The Animal soul tries to cover the influence of the G-dly soul, through tempting us with materialistic matter. It tries to confuse us with what is permissible and what is not. However, in chapter eighteen, the Alter Rebbe tells us that no matter how hard the Animal soul tries to distract a Jew from the truth of who he/she is, when he/she is confronted by a test of faith, the G-dly soul will always win. When a Jew is being threatened with the essence of who he/she is, the G-dly soul will come flying out. The G-dly soul will influence the person to act in whatever way necessary to remain a Jew. After understanding the essence of a Jew and a Jew’s inner struggle, the Alter Rebbe goes on to explain, in chapter twenty six, how to deal with pain and suffering in this world. He explains that G-d only does good to us; yet, as limited mortals, sometimes we are unable to perceive the situation as it really is. The Alter Rebbe goes on to explain that the source of ‘darkness’ and challenges in this world comes from a higher level of G-d than the source of where (what we perceive as) good comes from. The Alter Rebbe teaches us in this chapter that when we embrace our troubles, we are deepening our connection to G-d. When a difficult situation falls into our lives, we must remember that it is truly good and it is only here to strengthen our relationship with G-d. The whole philosophy of Chabad Chassidus is to use our intellect to affect our emotions. Through contemplating these ideas and allowing these ideas to penetrate our being, our perspectives and understanding of life will change. Following this discussion of how to react to external challenges, the Alter Rebbe goes on to explain the purpose of our life, beginning in chapter thirty six. When G-d created the world, He concealed Himself in a way where naturally, a human cannot perceive Him. The physical world and physicality of this world can only reflect G-d when a Jew uses it for a G-dly purpose. The Alter Rebbe states how the whole purpose of creation is for the Jewish people to reveal G-dliness in this world, through learning the Torah and fulfilling the Mitzvos. We must take the G-dliness from the Torah and incorporate it into our lives. Every physical object has a G-dly spark within it, waiting to be elevated. The Torah tells us which objects are permissible for us, and as a Jew it is our job to elevate the G-dly sparks within those objects. Through learning Torah and doing Mitzvos, we are making this world a home for G-d, which is the entire purpose of creation! We must use everything we have to reveal G-d in this world, thereby refining this world to accept G-dliness more willingly. This is the perfect discussion after the Alter Rebbe teaches us how to deal with challenges because no matter the hardship, we must always focus on our mission. Even when things may seem difficult, we are taught by the Alter Rebbe, through the way he orders his chapters, to always focus and remember what a Jew’s job in this world is.

After learning these ideas, a Jew will no longer feel a lacking in his/her life.  When a Jew focuses on the essence of who he/she is and on the understanding of what a privilege it is to be Jewish, he/she will not turn to other sources for answers, happiness, or meaning. When a Jew knows who he/she is in relation to the Creator of the Universe, he/she will remain strong and focused, even during difficult times. Most importantly, when a Jew understands who he/she is in the world, he/she will focus to fulfill his/her mission. Through the order of the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe beautifully builds up this idea.

The most important thing to do is learn: Learn about the essence of a Jew, the importance of being a Jew, and how to fulfill the role of a Jew. The Alter Rebbe explicitly states in the Tanya what a Jew is, he gives us tips on how to deal with challenging times, and he teaches us to focus on the task we were charged with.

After learning these concepts the first time, stop to internalize it. How does this affect my life? How does it change the way I have been living until now? How am I going to change my behavior? Think about it. Discuss it with others. Allow these Chassidic ideas to penetrate your being and change your outlook on Judaism, on your purpose in life, and on yourself. Learn it over and over again. Each time you learn it, allow the ideas to continue impacting who you are.

The bottom line is that it seems like we are living in a jungle. Things are tangled up and confused. Jews are looking elsewhere for answers, for meaning, and for happiness. Yet, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe describes, in a Chassidic discourse[2], the world as a garden- a beautiful garden- as G-d’s garden. The Sages in each generation see the world as it is in its purest state. Therefore, this is true. When we learn the Tanya, we will be able to see the world through the same lenses as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We will be able to logically understand, and through internalizing these ideas, we will feel how this world truly is G-d’s beautiful garden.

Footnotes and Sources:

[1] http://spirituality.ucla.edu/docs/news/Spiritual_Quest_press_release.pdf
[2] Basi Legani 5711

About the Author

Hi! My name is Talya Portnoy. I grew up in Florida. I love Chassidus and I feel so blessed that I am able to see the world through a different and better perspective.