Not On Our Own

By Shlomo Sherman, Las Vegas, Nevada
Essays 2018

MyLife Essay Contest 2018

Amidst today’s cornucopia of vices, foibles, compulsions and addictions, many have been searching for a solution, for some trick or life-hack, to free them from the clutches of destructive habits and behavior. How do we break out of this loop? How do we take the next meaningful step toward fulfilling our purpose? Some have turned to the now-ubiquitous 12 Steps of Recovery, originally designed for Alcoholics Anonymous, as a meaningful path to recovery and wellness. These steps have been so remarkably effective for addicts, that the well-known psychiatrist, Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., has authored several books adapting the 12 Steps as an approach to healthy living for non-addicts as well. All that is in the world, however, flows from Torah, and the core and foundational principles of the 12 Steps are found in the earliest works of Chassidus.

The first three of the 12 Steps are as follows:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of G-d as we understood Him.

I had always regarded these steps with a certain measure of disdain. After all, what sort of behavioral cripple is incapable of being a mensch without Divine intervention? What kind of moral fatigue could lead to such wholesale surrender? Surely only a quitter, or one suffering from some debilitating chronic weakness far removed from my own experience could, or would even want to, find solace in these steps.

It still amazes me that, despite having been a student of Chassidus for many years, I could still embrace such a shallow perspective. How could I possibly have missed that these basic tenets of recovery for addicts were in fact echoes of Chassidus’s key prescription for a life of meaning and integrity?

The subject of Chassidus is G-d. The purpose of Chassidus is bittul, or self-nullification.

Unsurprisingly, just as I’ve been dismissive of the 12-Steps, I’ve always been uncomfortable around bittul. Self-nullification just seemed so…wasteful. Here I am, a talented human being, with so many abilities, so many dreams, and so much personal promise. Books and films filled me with childish fantasies of being a hero, earning widespread acclaim and admiration through my impressive achievements. Why would I want to nullify all that?

So I relegated bittul to the large heap of values that I considered merely aspirational. Lofty virtues intended for lofty people. Perhaps someday, grandchildren on my knee, after I finally mastered the basics of Jewish observance, I might even consider bittul as something applicable to me.

In the meantime, I wanted to be able to take credit for my own victories; to know that it was my power that got me to the finish line. Bittul seemed like it would deprive me of all of the motivations that made life worthwhile. To my robust sense of self, bittul just felt wrong.

But that’s really the point, isn’t it?

My motives were off, and entirely self-serving. That very sense of self that I was so reluctant to abandon is precisely that which gets in the way of fulfilling my purpose in this world; which, in turn, puts me at odds with everything else that depends upon my fulfilling that purpose.

What would be the cosmic benefit in my being able to claim credit for my accomplishments? If I happen to be victorious in a struggle with my baser impulses, all on my own, what have I really contributed to the universe? Billions of such struggles occur every moment throughout humanity; did my personal win brighten the world? Did it say anything in particular about G-d?

Sure, I felt good if my victory happened to be aligned with G-d’s will. Even better, if G-d’s will was the inspiration for my win. But the victory was mine. I was strong; I was in control. It fed my sense of self, my independence, my self-sufficiency.

Not only was this foolish but, of course, it didn’t last. The percentage of the struggles that I won was dwarfed by my many losses. While my few successes allowed me to maintain the illusion of my own control – that I “had it in me,” and could “go it alone” – my persistent failures demonstrated that something was clearly broken in my system, something was awry with the larger picture.

Chassidus teaches, first and foremost, that we are powerless over our evil inclination.

In the very beginning of Tanya, the magnum opus of Chabad Chassidus, the Alter Rebbe explains that most of us will not yet have reached the coveted status of a “Beinoni” (the “intermediate one”) – one who maintains complete control over his or her three faculties of expression: thought, speech and action. A Beinoni is one who will never (and has never)(1) deliberately indulged in an inappropriate thought, word, or deed. Unlike a Tzaddik – the righteous man who is no longer plagued by an evil inclination at all – a Beinoni is the level that every Jew is theoretically capable of achieving.

Most of us, however, likely fall into the default category of a “Rasha” – the “wicked one” – albeit a Rasha “who has good to him.” This category encompasses anybody who ever stumbles and permits an unholy thought to occupy his consciousness, who gives voice to a forbidden word, or who commits a prohibited action. In between stumbles, however, the Rasha experiences remorse, and firmly resolves not to return to such behavior in the future. Concerning such a person, the Sages of blessed memory have said, “the wicked are full of remorse.”(2) Sometimes, a Rasha may even do Teshuva; he may sincerely repent his mistakes, and secure G-d’s forgiveness for his sins. Even he, however, may nevertheless remain stuck in a destructive cycle of sin, against forces too powerful for him to overcome. Even a repentant may nonetheless remain a Rasha.(3)

Now that’s a sobering thought. But even more illuminating is this:

Even a Beinoni has no power, on his own, to overcome his impulses – not even by harnessing the natural resources of the G-dly soul. Rather, G-d Himself must consistently come to the aid of the Beinoni’s good inclination, giving it a special boost, to enable its victory over the evil inclination. As the Sages say, “Man’s evil inclination gathers strength daily, …and if the Almighty did not help him (i.e., his good inclination) he could not overcome it.” Thus, it is only through active Divine support that even the Beinoni can maintain his sanity.(4)

So it takes a Power greater than ourselves to maintain our sanity.

Imagine a corral of wild stallions. Beautiful creatures, their muscles taut, rippling with raw strength. Such horses are capable of traversing vast distances in minimal time. Yet they are utterly directionless, other than where animal instincts might lead them. They gallop this way and that, aimless, incapable of setting upon a meaningful course without human riders to take their reins, harness their might, and guide them to where the riders need them to go.

We are the horses. G-d is the Rider.

According to one version of a famous Chassidic story, the son of the Maggid of Mezeritch, Rabbi Avraham HaMalach, told the coachman to whip the horses “until they know that they are horses.” The only problem with being G-d’s horse is when we think we are independently capable of determining our own direction. We forget that we’re only a horse.

Bittul means allowing G-d to take over.

This is by no means an abdication of personal responsibility; rather, it is in defining the nature of that responsibility. While we must never simply roll over and surrender to our evil inclination, our primary responsibility is to reach for G-d, and to allow Him to take over. Chassidic doctrine refers to this as Kaballas Ol – accepting the yoke of Heaven (or perhaps, consistent with the above analogy, the saddle).

For so many years I thought this meant bottom-line obedience. Doing what you’re told, regardless of how you may feel about it. But Kaballas Ol is so much more powerful and vital a concept than that. It’s not about what we do; it’s about who holds our reins. It’s about allowing ourselves to be led by G-d. To let G-d be our Rider.

This fundamentally alters the landscape of our personal battlefield.

Here’s a riddle: Your basement is flooding from a broken pipe. Before you are both a cup and a bucket. Which do you choose?

The answer is obvious: Neither. You turn off the water main.

Too often, convinced of our own omnipotence, we subscribe to one of any number of false choices. The cup. The bucket. It’s true that a bucket can hold more than a cup; but using either of those objects in this case would be evidence of the same limited thinking ultimately resulting in defeat. The only true solution involves turning to the source, shutting off the water main; or in this case, turning ourselves over to G-d. Grappling with our darker impulses using only our own power and resources is a recipe for defeat. We simply were not built with the tools to win that battle on our own.

“We must turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

This Chassidic idea is not only basic, but critical to Torah observance.

The Sages said that “the Patriarchs are truly the [Divine] chariot,”(5) for throughout their lives they served as nothing more than a vehicle for the Divine Will.(6) We may not be at quite at the level of a mere vehicle; not with all of our embarrassing and contrarian impulses and reflexes. No, we are servants of the Almighty, and our Sages have established that “a slave prefers a life of abandon.”(7) We are much more like a horse, lurching and rocking this way and that out of some undercurrent of resistance to the control that we have surrendered to our Rider.

Chassidus tends to couch its teachings in the language of light. However, Chassidus’s preoccupation with light is not simply a warm and fuzzy alternative to the more severe tones of the Mussar movement; it is certainly uplifting and encouraging, but that is merely a byproduct of its main purpose.

Light is both the preferred analogy for Divine revelation and the flow of Divine sustenance, as well as being the antithesis of darkness. All that conceals G-dliness is darkness. Our false sense of selfsufficiency blocks the Divine light, casting long shadows over our lives. Chassidus teaches us, as many addicts counsel each other, to “let go, and let G-d.” To get out of the way of the light.

Every Chabad child learns at a young age that the world was created out of G-d’s desire to have a dwelling place in the lower realms – our world at their Center. G-d only dwells, however, where there is bittul; where none imagines himself to be distinct from G-d, getting in the way of the light, by asserting an imaginary control over G-d’s world.(8)

Many addicts who turn to the 12 Steps for their recovery have had this bittul imposed upon them. Their “lives had become unmanageable.” They realized that their pretense of control was a tragic wrecking ball through their lives, often causing harm to others within their sphere of influence as well. Hitting bottom has a remarkable way of demonstrating the folly of the illusion of control and self-sufficiency.(9)

But for everyone, addict or not, bittul – turning our lives over to G-d – is the only way to win the otherwise hopeless and debilitating war with our raging impulses. In Moses’ immortal words: “G-d will wage battle for you; you be silent.”(10)

We can’t control the direction, but we can choose who sits in the driver’s seat. We can’t win the war, but G-d can. Chassidus teaches us how to get out of our own way.

1. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that, to a Beinoni, despite his past, the idea of actually committing a sin is now so remote that it is as though he never sinned before.
2. Reishis Chochmah, Shaar Yirah, 3; Shevet Mussar, 25.
3. Likutei Amarim, Ch. 11.
4. Likutei Amarim, Ch. 13.
5. Bereishis Rabbah 47:6
6. Likutei Amarim, Ch. 23.
7. Talmud Bavli, Kesubos 11a.
8. Likutei Amarim, Ch. 6.
9. Ironically, some addicts that I have spoken to have expressed the greatest difficulty with Steps 2 and 3 – trusting in, and turning their lives over to G-d. Not having been reared and schooled in theology or mysticism, many addicts are introduced to the idea of a “Higher Power” for the first time in seeking recovery. For those who learn Chassidus, however, these truths are elementary.
10. Sh’mos, 14:14.