Living with Passion
Essays 2019 / Hopelessness
Most people have had the experience of hearing someone passionately champion a cause, and thinking, “He’s so into it. I’m not. Where does his excitement come from, and why do not I share it?” When the other shows spirit and zest for Judaism, we might feel a twinge of guilt, because that should be the center of our lives. If it is not, we feel bad when our apathy is thrown sharply into focus against another’s vitality. And we wonder, for a brief instant, why his relationship with Hashem is so much deeper and joyous than ours, and why we do not attach that much sentiment to the routine Mitzvos we do while he does.
Think of two people wishing each other good morning. One of them is heartfelt and genuine, while the other mutters a hasty greeting without any affection for the other. Unfortunately, such apathy can be seen everywhere, including Judaism. However, our Judaism is not intended to be rituals performed merely out of duty and habit. On the contrary, “One’s Torah study and prayer ought to be fired by an ardent heart” (Hayom Yom 16 Shvat), and we must “serve Hashem with joy” (Psalms 100:2). Service for Hashem should be characterized by vivacity and warmth, and this essay will explain how to attain that.
For instance, in a relationship between two people, there must be sincere love and a desire to connect from both of their parts in order to have a real relationship. A dry, lifeless interaction is lacking in comparison. Not only is it missing out on something so much more beautiful, but in regards to our relationship with Hashem, “only a very fine line separates spiritual frigidity from an actual denial of Hashem” (Hayom Yom 16 Shvat). This is because if a person doesn’t care about spirituality, he’s likely to simply drop it altogether. People do not do something long-term they do not value. Apathy causes stagnation and a decline in growth in serving Hashem.
Passion for Torah does not come from thin air, and one cannot wait for inspiration from an outside source to strike us. Even if one does get inspired, the burning enthusiasm will soon fade if it was not fully internalized by the person. In other words, if you do fully internalize a concept, the feeling for it will last. That idea is obvious in many aspects of life.
There is a story told of a clerk reading a telegram to a man that shared tragic news about the man’s family. While the clerk remained unaffected, the man cried bitterly. There is no question why the two men reacted so differently to the same news. For the clerk, the telegram was irrelevant, while the news hit very close to home for the other. Furthermore, it is clear that the relative who heard unfortunate news will remain affected for a long time. In our life, we have to make concepts feel close to home in order to care about them. Once we have that, our passion will not easily leave us.
How does this work? The Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya the process of internalizing an idea so that passion for it lasts.
There are three different aspects of our intellect. The first is Chochmah, which means wisdom. This is the initial flash of an idea, and while not yet developed or understood, the potential for the whole idea is in that spark of thought. The second part of the intellect is Binah, understanding. This is when the mind fully develops the idea and understands it in all its details. And the last part of the intellectual process is Da’as. Translated as knowledge, it refers to that point when it really sinks in and you know it deeply in a way that becomes part of you. Da’as is more than knowledge; it is internalizing. For example, a person can read information about someone else and understand it, yet the way he knows his own life story is incomparably greater and deeper. Another example is that of a thief who knows that it is wrong to steal, yet clearly did not absorb that fact. There’s an invisible line that one crosses from understanding to knowing, and the way to traverse it will be explained below.
Thought and emotion
When a person attains this level of absorbing a concept, a knowledge deeper than simply understanding, the automatic result is emotions for that concept, as the Tanya says, “Da’as provides the substance and vitality of the emotions” (Chapter three).
If a person internalizes that a specific person is fantastic, he will feel love towards that person, like in a relationship with any two people. This works for everything else as well. A person who really knows that a particular thing is disgusting will feel repulsed by it, absorbing the dangers of smoking will lead to an abhorrence for smoking, and so on. In short, the intellectual process of internalizing something brings emotions in its wake.
When one lacks feelings for Torah, love of another Jew, or concern over small details in the practical Mitzvos, it is because an intellectual process has not taken place or has not been profound enough to awaken a desire and love for it.
An obvious question comes up: How is one supposed to reach the point of internalizing a concept until he feels emotions for it? For example, I might know and believe that there is a G-d who runs the world and takes care of every small details of life, but I do not feel any great love for Him. I might understand intellectually that every Jew has a soul and is infinitely precious, yet still not feel love towards all Jews. If in order to get rid of apathy one must absorb an idea’s profundity, then how does one do that?
The method to reach Da’as and thereby really feel for something is through Hisbonenus, meaning deep contemplation. As the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya, “when the intellect in the rational soul deeply contemplates and immerses itself exceedingly in the greatness of Hashem… awe for the Divine Majesty will be born… his heart will glow with an intense love (of Hashem)” (Chapter three).
In other words, the way to reach the point of true fear and love of Hashem is through deeply meditating on a concept under he truly absorbs the idea. The Tanya is explaining how to come to love and fear of Hashem, but the same rule applies for everything. In order to feel emotions that are not otherwise there, one must contemplate and think about the idea.
Concentrating on something for a while is not easy, especially in the middle of a busy day full of distractions. But in order to truly feel the joy of Torah and Mitzvos, to have a deep connection to Hashem that carries us through hard times and motivates our personal growth, it is crucial to break away from the mind-numbing routine we fall into and spend some time to meditate on the depth behind everything in our service to Hashem. We are not made to be robots, and shouldn’t live that way, so spend a few minutes somewhere quiet to think about the reason behind the Mitzvos you do, behind the love you are supposed to feel towards Hashem and your fellow Jew, and internalize it. Hisbonenus is a way of creating true and lasting feeling for something through contemplation.
Importance of Learning
“What should I think about?” is a typical concern, because with no fuel for the mind, it can not go anywhere. In this case, fuel to keep the mind engaged is information gained by learning. It would be virtually impossible to think about and appreciate the vital importance of proper nutrition if one knows nothing about what consists of both good and bad nutrition. Once a person knows the facts about healthy nourishment, he can mull over it until it sinks in and becomes important enough to him so that he will eat healthily.
The same goes for anything else. Learning, therefore, about Hashem’s greatness, the value of every Jew, and the like, will enable a person to broaden their understanding and knowledge into an internalized and cherished concept that they will seek to implement. Learning provides a basis for contemplation and is consequently vital.
It says in Hayom Yom, 21 Cheshvan, that “the labor of prayer (referring to a careful saying of all the words with meditation throughout) bring one’s intellectual comprehension into the emotions of the heart.” Prayer, like stated by the Alter Rebbe, is essentially service of the heart. It is where the depth of our connection with Hashem is expressed, and therefore when our passion or apathy towards Judaism is apparent. At the same time, prayer is specifically the time to work on building up our relationship with Hashem and meditating on His greatness, thereby creating a love and fear for Him. Therefore, many descriptions about Hisbonenus and statements concerning its effect are in relation to prayer, which is a time primarily devoted to emotions as opposed to action itself. One should concentrate on the meaning behind the words said, and can meditate on the depth it contains. Of course, while Hisbonenus is important for prayer and a prime time for it, one should feel passion and joy in everything he does spiritually, and one should contemplate about areas that require more enthusiasm. Yet prayer is still a special time for meditation that should be used to provide motivation for the rest of the day.
The above process is a fundamental aspect of Chabad Chassidus, which stresses using the intellect to rule our heart. In other words, creating emotions based on a thought process as opposed to the intellect being dominated by instinctive emotions. Sometimes, however, this ideal method does not work. At times, despite trying to reflect meditatively on a point in his personal service to Hashem, a person still doesn’t feel anything. There is a break between his mind and heart, and his thoughts are not leading him anywhere. His heart feels cold, and dull.
For example, a person no longer has a passion for the blessings said before he eats food. He used to feel, while saying the blessing, love and gratitude that Hashem created food, made it grow, and allowed him to eat it, but lately he just doesn’t feel that anymore. He doesn’t know why, because he still understands the greatness behind Hashem creating his food. He attempts thinks about it, but still he doesn’t feel a sense of gratitude and wonder at the miracle he is experiencing, and his meditation is falling flat.
In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe describes this as Timtum Halev, dullness of the heart. He describes this difficulty, as “they experience a dullness of the heart, as though it had turned to stone, and try as they might, they cannot open their heart in prayer, which is the service of the heart” (Chapter 29). The reason for this is likewise explained in Tanya, that the Kelipa, the force of evil within him that always opposes G-dliness “exalts itself over the light of the divine soul’s holiness, concealing its radiance.” (chapter 29). In other words, each person has a holy G-dly soul in him and also the Animal soul that seeks pleasure and is selfish, declaring that he doesn’t have to submit to Hashem. When this part of a person takes over, then as the Alter Rebbe writes, the Kelipa, the bad, is now blocking the soul’s radiance, and he doesn’t feel the positive emotions in his soul anymore. It’s the cause of the mental block that he’s feeling.
Once we know that the cause for the disconnect in his feelings is that he’s lost his focus on doing what Hashem wants, it follows that the solution is to re-focus on that. In other words, show yourself how wrong the selfishness of the Animal soul is and how bad it is to go along with it. An honest self-evaluation makes one realize where they are holding and how they allow selfishness to take over too often. One will face the truth of his faults, and once those are put in their place, they no longer wield such influence over the person, because they were recognized as bad. Back on track again, open to progress in his personal service, he can feel emotions again. The obstacles were removed and he can now move on.
The Tanya addresses the issue of indifference in one’s service of Hashem clearly and practically:
- In order to have real interest in something, one has to absorb its importance, and that can only happen if one spends time thinking about it.
- Therefore, it is important to spend time mulling over the profundity of daily Mitzvos and prayer. It could be just a few minutes a day, but over time focusing on a thought will become easier if we train ourselves.
- Prayer goes hand-in-hand with meditation about Hashem, because prayer is when one seeks to deepen his relationship with Him.
- The mind can delve very deep and broadly on a topic, but in order to have food for thought, one has to learn about that topic first.
- A lack of emotion despite meditation comes, as the Alter Rebbe explains, from the ego of our Animal soul taking over us and blocking our G-dly Soul from expressing itself and feeling emotions. Its strength will deflate when the wrong inherent in it is recognized.
The Torah is “A tree of life for those who grab hold to it.” Torah brings life and vitality, but we have to tune into that depth, otherwise it becomes a burden. There is a story of a bird who, at creation, complained to Hashem. “You made me so puny and small, how will I survive in the world where the strong devour the weak?” In response, Hashem added heavy things on its back.
In distress, the bird cried out, “Hashem, now I certainly will not be able to outrun my predators with these weights on my back!”
“My dear,” Hashem responded, “those weights are your wings. They seem like a burden, but if you spread them out and use them, they will take you far away and above the animals on the earth.”
Like a bird and its wings, without understanding the gift that is the Torah, it will be carried along reluctantly. Truly, it is a gift to bring us closer to Hashem, but lacking awareness of that causes the gift to be wasted. Awareness and knowledge are what will turn a burden into the gift of wings. Life can become more meaningful and filled with enthusiasm for Torah. However, we must work to internalize it by contemplation, and by remaining focused on doing what Hashem wants and how anything hindering that is corrupt. Then, our minds will lead us to feel love for Hashem and Torah. The Rebbe Maharash said, as quoted in Hayom Yom, 5 Nissan, that “a person’s place, his environment, should not cool his passion, rather, every individual has the power to illuminate his environment with the light of Torah and Divine service.” The world should not make us apathetic; we can spread our inner passion to the world.