Seeing the Future

Lily Richman
Essays 2020 / Student Winners / Winning Essays

Before going to bed, many people will set their alarm to go off bright and early with the intention of going to the gym, eating a healthy breakfast, and doing a load of laundry all before starting their day. When the alarm goes off, though, they find themselves pressing the snooze button repeatedly and never even making it to the gym. We know that going to the gym would make us healthier and provide us with the energy boost for a productive day, but the warm bed and extra time to close our eyes is just too tempting. The need for instant gratification which often serves as a substitute for long-term happiness is an issue with effects spanning across a wide spectrum, encompassing the most minute to the most significant details of our lives.

The above-mentioned example may seem minor, but at the other extreme, you will find people who are going through a period of dissatisfaction with their lives seeking novel relationships with young, physically attractive people in an attempt to fill a void. Experiencing the shallow sense of pleasure that comes along with the new relationships can cause them to seek newness and excitement in other ways. Most times they will turn towards another unhealthy outlet such as drugs, alcohol, or gambling. Often, this results in an addiction to these artificial forms of happiness. Being that they have been blinded by such addictions, people become unable to work through the real issues causing dissatisfaction in their lives.

Living in a society centered around high-speed internet, same-day delivery, and just about anything available with the push of a button, people have become conditioned to expect immediate gratification in all areas of their life, including their spiritual lives. Often the pursuit of instant gratification over long term happiness is destructive and creates empty lives that lack meaningful existence. Expecting a quick and superficial form of pleasure in the spiritual realm of one’s life is especially problematic, as establishing a true connection with the Divine through slow, contemplative prayer and meditation is precisely the solution to the problem. True ruchnius (spirituality) can only be achieved through hard work and practice. A person can sit silently with their eyes closed on top of a mountain clearing their mind for as long as they want, and that may momentarily satisfy their need for a fluffy spiritual experience, but will not refine and heal the person in totality. What may appear to be the most short and efficient way to get what we want actually makes our end goals further and harder to attain[1].

We all know that ‘good things come to those who wait’, so where is the disconnect between our recognition of this fact and our inability to wait and toil to be able to experience life’s greatest blessings? Furthermore, how do we stop settling for life’s consolation prizes when in truth, the grand prize is within our reach? We need to reestablish our sense of perspective that has been lost in today’s fast-paced society. This requires a shift from a focus on the superficial, comfortable, and immediate pleasures of the physical body, to a focus on the longer-lasting, eternal higher pleasures of the soul. By changing our perspective to ‘see the future’, we will  recognize an imperative need to connect to G-d, which can be accomplished through meaningful prayer and meditation.

There are countless events throughout Jewish history that also demonstrate humans’ overwhelming desire for instant gratification. For example, the very first human beings’ first transgression was done in pursuit of instant gratification. This first failing of humankind recorded in the Torah recounts when Adam and Eve were instructed by G-d not to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. The less-known component of the famous story is that the fruit was not meant to be eternally prohibited; G-d created Adam and Eve on Friday afternoon and only instructed them to refrain from eating the fruit for three hours, until Shabbat! Adam and Eve’s lack of self-control led to their banishment from the Garden of Eden and invoked Divine punishment on them and their descendants, all of humanity. To this day we are reminded of this fundamental lesson through the mitzvah of Orlah, which requires Jewish people to wait three years before eating the first fruit of any tree[2]. Why were Adam and Eve unable to refrain from eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge for only three hours? Similarly, why is it still so challenging for us to control ourselves in the face of immediate temptation, when we know that we are sacrificing life’s real rewards?

We know that the fast-paced world we live in plays a huge role in people’s need for instant gratification, but what  is the deeper root of this problem? It is not simply a societal issue because as we see, the desire for instant gratification is an issue that started at the beginning of creation. While our environment has certainly exacerbated the issue, the issue stems from deep within us. From a modern psychological perspective, it is known that the human struggle between conflicting drives is the biggest issue facing psychology. One of the most prevalent theories on this is Sigmund Freud’s concept of the id, ego, and superego. Freud claims that the ‘id” is the primal, unconscious part of the psyche that responds to a person’s basic needs and desires, the “ego” is the rational part of the psyche that uses reason to figure out realistic ways to meet the id’s demands, and the “superego” is the part of the psyche that stores and enforces rules based on parental and societal values. Freud’s theory combined with Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest”, known as the Darwinian-Freud model, claims that the most basic and powerful human drive is selfish survival, and is the prevailing theory on the human psyche and its struggles.

Preceding Freud and Darwin, though, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the Alter Rebbe) created a truly revolutionary psychological model. The Alter Rebbe’s model includes the basic contemporary psychological ideas but includes an additional and essential component which is the inherent Divine spirit. His model is based on three main principles. The first of the three principles is that human self-control is inherent, not acquired. The second principle is that the essence of a human is good and Divine; the Yid, not the Id. The third principle is that even man’s intrinsic self and selfishness (“idness”) is rooted in the Essence of the Divine Self[3].

To further explain the Alter Rebbe’s model, every Jewish person is comprised of two souls- an animal soul, and a G-dly soul[4]. The animal soul is concerned with the physical desires of the body that culminate in comfort and instant gratification, for example, food, sleep, and money. The G-dly soul, on the other hand, desires longer-lasting, eternal pleasures such as meaning, love, good deeds, and connection to G-d. Both our body and our soul crave attention and nourishment, and we are constantly in a position to choose which one to indulge. No other being besides Jewish people have this unique ability to make choices based on higher-level reasoning and thus having free will is a huge responsibility and a gift, when utilized properly. Ultimately, the goal is that the ego recognizes that it is a manifestation of the Divine Self and it can then become a vessel through which our inner good is revealed. Far too often, though, people give in to the superficial temptations of their animal soul, as the animal soul is clever and knows how to make compelling arguments in its favor. When a person gives in to the desires of their animal soul, he or she is adding fuel to the animal soul’s fire, making it stronger and giving it a leg-up for future battles.

The indulgence in superficial and materialistic pleasures causes a diminishment in a person’s decision making and rational thinking capabilities. Once his or her capacity for higher-level processing is weakened and the animal soul is in reign, a vicious cycle of loss of self-control is created. The body recognizes that when it gives into its immediate desires it often feels good right away. This conditions a person to want to give in to his or her immediate desires next time, too, because last time they did, they felt good, and who doesn’t want to feel good? What the animal soul doesn’t realize, though, is that it could feel really, really good with delayed gratification. By overlooking the value in future rewards and putting too much emphasis on near-term pleasures people often pay a huge price, as their decisions can have devastating effects both in their own lives and in the lives of others. By seeking happiness through instant means people are not only failing to deal with whatever is actually causing their discomfort, but they now have the added consequences of their poor, impulsive decision making to deal with. For example, a person may pick up a habit of smoking cigarettes in attempt to cope with a high-stress situation they are dealing with. By doing so, the circumstances of their situation have not changed, and now they may also have a health issue they need to address.

While extremely challenging, we do know that it is possible to keep our eyes on the prize and hold out for pleasures that go beyond the instantaneous. We see this when a person who is engaged in a disagreement with another person chooses to back down because they value the overall success of the relationship over being right and winning the argument. The same is true when a couple chooses to forego going on vacations so they can save money to buy a big house that they can raise a big family in.

Now, being aware that we possess an inherent, divine ability to implement self-control and overcome temptation, how do we achieve the necessary change in perspective to be able to focus on the bigger picture in all aspects of our lives?

“Who is the wise person? He who sees the future”[5]. This quote from the Talmud is not referring to a prophet; it is referring to a normal, simple person like you or me. ‘Seeing the future’ in this case is referring to a person’s ability to overcome his or her desire for instant gratification by recognizing that long-term happiness and many of life’s beautiful gifts take time and effort to obtain. This becomes possible when we embrace and tap into our inherent love and fear for Hashem that every single Jewish person possesses[6]. This love and fear becomes more accessible and revealed through meditation, known in Hebrew as hisbonenus, which is done for the purpose of attaining and internalizing new insights into G-d, the Torah, the world, and ourselves.

Chassidus explains that when engaging in hisbonenus, one must slow down and deeply contemplate and focus on the teachings of the Torah. The more a person knows about a particular aspect of the Torah that they are contemplating, the more connections they will have, making it more likely that a flash of insight will penetrate them and cause the concept that is already known to become one with them. This will transform the information we hold (knowing that we want the long-term result) and allow it to affect our decision making. The personal connection and inspiration the person gains in their mind will then make its way to their heart, exciting both a person’s intellect and emotion in the way of knowing G-d. The revelation that was born through the concentration, contemplation, and application of an intellectual concept will ultimately penetrate a person’s whole being, sparking an actual change in their attitudes and daily conduct[7].

Now it is time to get practical; how does one engage in hisbonenus? Since the goal of Jewish meditation is to draw human beings closer to G-d, the good news is that this can be accomplished through various activities, allowing an individual to connect to Hashem in the ways most suitable for themself. Torah study, music, dance, art, or prayer can all be a means for meditation if done with complete focused concentration. This high level of focus is attained when a person is so engrossed in what they are doing that they barely realize what is going on around them. There are countless ways for a person to partake in meaningful hisbonenus, but we will now examine a few common ways in-depth.

One of the means of engaging in hisbonenus is through learning Chassidic teachings through a Chassidic story or teaching of a Rebbe or chassid. These teachings have an extraordinary ability to help a person identify and resolve a spiritual or emotional dilemma since the teachings are often from people who are motivated only by their G-dly soul[8] and thus demonstrate how G-d behaves and wants us to behave[9]. For spiritual healing and refinement of character to take place, a person should slowly and repeatedly learn a teaching, contemplate it for an extended period of time, contemplate any parts of it that they do not fully grasp, and make parallels between their personal dilemma and the advice found in the teaching. Seeing the teaching through the lens of their life will result in personal transformation and revelation. Another practical way for Chassidic meditation to bring upon enlightenment is as it pertains to davening. Davening is a special time to discuss absolutely anything with Hashem and ask for help in any area of one’s life. The practice of Jewish prayer is filled with opportunity for meaning and understanding that is often untapped because people will do it the “instant gratification way” – try it a few times and give up quickly after being unfulfilled. First and foremost, one must acknowledge that true fulfillment will take practice and work. Having that in mind, one should then begin learning the deep meaning behind the prayers. When a person has discovered the Chassidic explanation of the words, just seeing the words while davening will trigger the thought that compels the person to stop and think about the essence of the prayer[10].

There are countless ways to engage in hisbonenus that can be effective as long as we are internalizing the inner dimensions of the Torah by sustaining them in our psyches, our minds, and our hearts in an excited manner. As an added bonus, Jews are gifted an extremely opportune time every week to slow down and create a meditative space – Shabbat. Shabbat in its nature provides a person with a peaceful atmosphere free from work and worldly distractions, in which they can connect with G-d. This is especially true on Shabbat, but every day, Hashem provides us with the time and space to connect with Him. We just need to do our part which is meditating and praying with focused intention.

Humans were created with a strong desire for physical pleasures that often manifest in the form of instant gratification. Being that Jewish people are comprised of two souls, an animal soul and a G-dly soul, the struggle to overcome physical desires is very real since it comes from deep within a person. Through prayer and meditation, a Jew can become more in-tune with their G-dly soul which desires eternal forms of gratification such as love, meaning, unity, charity, and immortality. Deeply internalizing the Torah and Chassidus through Hisbonenus will undoubtedly create everlasting change within a person and the way he or she interacts with the world. By resisting short-term and superficial pleasures a person is tapping into their true higher will and the will of Hashem. This will bring forth true happiness and ultimately hasten the coming of Moshiach.

[1] Tanya, Chapters 1-17

[2] Leviticus, Chapter 19

[3] MLC, 19 Kislev: How the Alter Rebbe Changed the World

[4] Genesis, Chapter 3

[5] Talmud, Tamid 32a

[6] Tanya, Chapter 16

[7] Sichos in English, Chassidic Soul Remedies

[8] Tanya, Chapters 1, 10

[9] Deuteronomy, Chapter 11

[10] COLlive, Making Davening More Meaningful