Serving G-d Despite Challenge: Four Steps of “How To”
Essays 2018 / Finalists
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, once asked his father, Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch, the Rebbe Rashab: What is the factor that holds all of one’s Service of G-d together? The Rebbe Rashab answered: “Man’s belief in his ability to change.”
Life is full of struggle. Sometimes, we become paralyzed by the feeling that things will never change, that our negative habits seem to be taking over, and that our self-control seems to be going on a downward spiral. Belief that any given situation can change, however, is the key to beginning our process of growth. Sometimes, all we need are some tools, a little bit of knowledge. Knowledge really is power. Below, are some of the priceless pieces of the knowledge of Chassidus that I’ve tried to internalize over the years. Chassidus, and it’s revolutionary approach to life, has the power to change our self-perspective, and our perspective on the world, completely. Through thinking about these concepts, taking them to heart, and implementing them, I’ve merited to see many positive results in my mindset and in my life in general. It is my greatest hope that the following will impact you as much as it impacted me, and that you’ll be able to apply some of its wisdom, bringing a heightened level of growth, meaning, and of joy to your life.
When I first started this essay—I was faced with a predicament: is serving G-d a “relevant contemporary issue?” Does the average person living in the twenty first century want to hear more about this, want to read up on this? Are people interested in hearing about how this plays out in day-to-day life? Serving G-d, in truth, is a personal journey of growth in small increments, and will be defined differently based on each person’s individual personality and life story. Simply working on getting closer to G-d, is really what it’s about. Every human being was given a soul, and that soul years for meaning, strives to reach a place that is beyond itself, and connect to a Higher Being, a Higher Power. We’re so focused on every type of “self-help” when it comes to overcoming challenges in our businesses, relationships, self-esteem, general performance and motivation. I’d like to propose that once in a while, we give our soul a voice, a space, an outlet, by focusing on how we can better achieve spiritual meaning and fulfillment in our lives. And what I’ve found, is that this is best accomplished through trying to connect to G-d, and attempting to do what He wants of you, in the best way possible.
Thus, I will begin my essay with this– is serving G-d a relevant challenge? I have enough belief in the power and relevance of the soul, and in my readers, that I think yes, it most definitely is. Becoming closer to G-d can be challenging, especially in the twenty first century, where the world at large glorifies physicality, boasts of ego, fame, glamor, and wealth. It’s easy to get distracted; it’s easy to get pulled down. The struggle is to stay afloat and thriving, as a proud Jew, living a joyous and meaningful journey towards a relationship with G-d in this physical world.
1. Accept the Phenomenon of Lifelong Struggle:
It was a beautiful day. We were situated in an open space, amidst the thicket of birch trees and the breeze of cool morning air. The camp grounds were set in the distance as my campers, each on their own journey of growth in their religious observance, readied themselves for an interesting and thought provoking class. It had been only a few days since we’d been at camp and my usually loud and lively bunch now sat eagerly, waiting to hear what I had to say. I opened that days class with question, which I posed to each of my campers— What is your personal favorite part of Judaism? What speaks to you?
Jamie raised her hand. She was a quieter kid, introspective, with a deep and profound mind and an open heart. She truly wanted to grow, and took in all the inspiration she could get, as if inhaling much needed oxygen. Throughout the past few days, I’d gotten to know that she struggled in multiple areas of life, and that her home life was far from perfect. But I could have never anticipated what came out of her mouth: “I like the fact that it’s not easy— because when something’s not easy, I know it’s real.”
Besides for the fact that this is a remarkably mature and insightful thing for a thirteen year old to say, I remarked at how true the sentiment was. The path towards becoming closer to G-d, in whatever way that might be, is a beautiful and worthwhile one. However maintaining a connection with G-d in a world that often times seems dark, can be challenging. As my camper so eloquently said, anything in life that is worth your while, that is real, isn’t easy. From those things in life that are as meaningful as giving birth to a child, or building a strong marriage or other interpersonal relationship, to those that are less meaningful yet important, such as spearheading a large project or company, we all know that good things take work.
Let’s paint a picture of what the day of an average person may look like: Force yourself out of bed in the morning, pledge to connect to G-d anew, with newfound enthusiasm and zest, get out of bed, constrain the desire to get lazy and delay getting dressed, constrain the desire to perhaps look at a few things on your phone that are not exactly in line with spirituality and Gdly intent, get dressed, go downstairs, push away multiple distracting thoughts that seem to bombard and evade your mind, try to grab hold of a few moments of silence and connection with the Infinite, go to work, constrain the desire to say something nasty to a coworker, and the list goes on… And this is a good day. We are constantly in an all-day, every moment battle of trying to do the right thing. And the truth is that G-d wants it this way. We were put in this world to fight.
But it’s not easy to accept this reality. Ever woke up one day and just felt like a failure? Like you’re trying to be a good Jew, and stay connected, and just keep failing at it?
The book of Tanya, written by the first Rebbe and founder of the Chabad Movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalmen of Liadi explains that restrainment of evil, is the hight of success in G-d’s eyes. The Beinoni, or the intermediate man, in Tanya, by merely restraining negative impulses, draws G-d into this world, subdues Klipa, that which opposed G-d, and thus, fulfills his mission in life.
This is the due measure of the Beinonim and their task: To subdue the evil impulse and the thought that rises from the heart to the mind, and to completely avert his mind from it, repulsing it as it were with both hands, as explained above (in ch 12). With every repulsion of this thought from his mind, the sitra achra is suppressed here below in This World.
(Chapter 27, Likkutei Amarim Tanya)
If you’re not perfect yet, you’re on the right track, the track that 99% of people are on, the track that G-d gets infinite pleasure from seeing you and those who struggle and come through with flying colors, tread upon. The track which the movers and shakers of the world walk, the ones who bring darkness to light, who don’t get pulled down by the everenormous challenges that the world and sometimes our own selves, place upon us.
But what’s when we do the exact opposite of what G-d wants of us, when we sin? When we do fall, and fall hard. And the little fear in the back of our minds— that we might just do this again, is enough to set us bolting. It’s in those moments that we must look ourselves in the mirror and tell ourselves. Okay, I fell. I’m not perfect. I sinned and I might just sin again. But I’m on a journey, and the only way from here is up. If we have any hope to overcome any challenge in life, we must embrace that we will probably be fighting the same two or three challenges our entire lives, and that okay. That’s what G-d wants. A person who embraces this reality and is committed to fighting, will grow. A person who is honest and accepts his imperfections, will grow to develop a deep bond with G-d, one that is possibly even deeper then had he been perfect in the first place. It’s bond of struggle and triumph. It’s a bond of challenge and victory. It’s a bond that comes forth from having transformed darkness into light.
Therefore one should not feel depressed or very troubled at heart even if he be engaged all his days in this conflict. For perhaps this is what he was created for, and this is the service demanded of him — to subdue the sitra achra constantly.
(Chapter 27, Likkutei Amarim Tanya)
We must take inspiration, guidance, and wisdom from peers and from mentors and apply it to our own perfectly imperfect journey. We can’t sell ourselves short, saving inspiration and real devotion to G-d for our “formerly perfect selves.” We must accept and embrace who we are and who we’re not— and step up to the plate, the mission G-d Himself has put forth for us.
And boy is this journey real. The more one is exposed to the beauty and the depth of Judaism, the more one will take notice of the fact that Yiddishkeit is emes, Judaism is as true as it gets. And like Jamie said, this is going to be a long walk, but a worthwhile one. And perhaps the very fact that it’s long, proves that it’s worthwhile.
2. Become Accustomed to the Pain of Saying “No”
Once a person has embraced the fact that he will struggle, and that’s what G-d wants, he has to know a little bit about the “how-to.” There are certain things that G-d has ordained as wrong. And getting closer to G-d involves saying no to those things to the best of our ability which can be highly challenging at times. But what if we could become accustomed to saying no in general to things that aren’t terribly wrong, but are simply unnecessary? Would that help us to have the necessary measure of self-control when we were faced with a real challenge? Chassidus proposes exactly that:
My revered father, the Rebbe [Rashab], writes in one of his maamarim (Chassidic Discourses): “The chassidim of earlier generations made a firm resolve in their souls that whenever they encountered something that was halachically permitted but they desired and craved for it, they would refrain. Such a habit breaks physical desires.”
(Hayom Yom, 27 Shvat)
We may know a lot about G-d, or about why connecting to Him is a desirable path, we may want with all our heart soul to connect to G-d, but simple self-control is pivotal. A powerful moment in my life was the moment when one of my teachers banged on his desk and made an observation, a statement about life that was so profound, so true, one that completely changed the way I think about challenge. It went something like this:
“There are two types of people in this word. One that lives in a realm of theoretical thinking, who take their challenges and dissect them, formulate complicated plans of action to overcome them. And then there’s the kind of person who when ugly temptations comes and stare them in the face, he simply doesn’t give in. He simply doesn’t do it. More important than all the Chassidus you know, is that in the moment decision– when faced with something wrong, simply decide not to do it. Sometimes, we make our own lives complicated. We think that if we knew more, if only we’d learn more, we’d be able to control ourselves. No, controlling yourself isn’t a logical process. It’s simply controlling yourself. The most powerful tool we have is called Iskafia, simply saying no.”
Sounds oversimplified? Sounds like it negates the power of our intellectual and complex minds? I thought so too at first. But something about what he said rang so deep, so true. So many times, we know we’re not supposed to do something, and we do it anyways. In truth, knowing something doesn’t always solve an “in the moment” desire or temptation. Becoming accustomed to saying no to our own selves, to the point where we become accustomed to having self-control on a constant basis, does. Although we for whatever reason we would like to believe that life is far more complicated than it is, some things are indeed pretty simple.
Ever heard of The Five Second Rule by Mel Robbins? The premise of the book is that life is made up of millions of intervals of a few seconds, seconds where we, although many times we don’t realize it, have the power to change the course of our entire lives. The biggest leaps and jumps into habit change, character change, and the largest projects to be taken on, all happened because they started with a few seconds where someone decided to commit themselves to do or not to do something. The book even suggests that when looking at a decision that may seem small, for example getting out of bed in the morning, we remember how pivotal this single decision can be, and literally count down five seconds in our head and get out of bed. There are hundreds upon thousands of people whose lives have been changed through this book. Iskafia, an idea that came much before this book was published, emphasizes the same idea—the choice to connect to the Infinite, or G-d Forbid not to, spans seconds, but is crucial. And we must learn to overcome the challenge head on. When faced with a challenge, perhaps even a challenge that isn’t univocally wrong, perhaps it’s just a challenge that involves us giving into a materialistic desire for no apparent reason, we say no. And we practice saying no, and we say it again, and again, and again.
Perhaps the most liberating moment is the moment we realize that we are no longer slaves to our own selves. We are in charge of what we do and what we don’t do. In Yiddish it’s called being “a Baal Habos Oif Zich,” loosely translated as “Being in control of one’s own self.” It’s remarkable that there are people who give millions of dollars to charity and help others at the other side of the word. But their own selves, their own inner, personal lives, the challenges with their own homes, their own families, their own minds and hearts, are left untouched. There is something so profoundly difficult and perhaps even painful about managing our own inner worlds, that we’d sometimes prefer not to do it.
Throughout Jewish History, Self-Sacrifice amongst Jews has been a common theme. Chassidus tells us that real sacrifice, is sacrificing ones will, and exchanging it for G-d’s will. Where does a person get the strength to make their will G-d’s will and to not do what they are naturally inclined to do? From the same place that Jews for generations have been getting the strength to sacrifice their lives for the sake of G-d’s name, an unwavering and serious commitment to G-d that is above logic.(1)
Saying no is painful. Ever stared at a piece of cake and said “no, I will not eat it.” The feeling is painful. It’s a good kind of pain though. Become accustomed to that pain. It will get you far.
3. Trust that He Will Make You Win
So it all boils down to self-control, to effort, to perseverance? Not at all. One side to the coin is the effort that we must put in, but that’s not where it ends.
In truth, nothing ends with “self-anything”. If a person looks at his business, at his marriage, at his social status and says “ah, I’ve made it in life, I’ve made it because I worked hard,” he’s simply wrong. He “made it” because G-d allowed him to make it. G-d wants him to put in the effort to show Him that he’s not relying on miracles, he’s not leaving his entire life up to G-d without lifting a finger. But is the effort what actually got him there? Not really. Or not at all.(2)
That’s why when approaching any given challenge in life, including spiritual challenges— one has to know that he stands facing the challenge along with G-d Himself. He must trust that G-d will 100% make this turn for him in the best way possible. This certainty, that G-d will make positive things happen; actually will bring about positive events.(3)
If something painful has happened, even something painful that we think has been brought about by our own doing, by our own negative decision making; we must know that it was not a mistake. Because it happened. G-d made it happen. And G-d doesn’t make mistakes. If a person woke up late and missed their bus to work, logically it makes sense to blame oneself, to get angry at oneself, right? Obviously the fact that they missed the bus was because they were late, right? Wrong. What’s interesting and slightly fascinating is that since we’ve been young children, living in this world and in a society who doesn’t often draw connections between circumstances and spirituality, we’ve become accustomed to thinking that all circumstances in life must be a direct result of our actions. That, however, is far from the truth(4). Circumstances are brought about solely because G-d willed them to be so. In fact we can do everything in our power, but unless G-d willed something to be, it will not happen.(5)
According to this, we have to redefine what it means to set ourselves up for success. The formula for success when navigating any life challenge according to Chassidus, is: a certain amount of effort, coupled with an infinitely larger amount of trust in our Creator that He will pull through for us.
This certainty, this trust, is brought about through an awareness of a relationship. Cultivating this sort of relationship is necessary in order to truly trust G-d and to truly believe that He wants what’s best for you, to truly believe that He loves you like an only child(6). Doing Torah and Mitzvos with passion and love, help cultivate this relationship. But specifically prayer has the ability to deepen ones relationship with G-d to a very large extent, and imbue within a person an unwavering trust that G-d will pull through for him. The awareness of such a trust is something a person can count upon and draw back on during any given point of his day.
“Besides, there is nothing more conducive to attune the mind and heart towards the consciousness of G-d’s Presence than regular prayer, where the first condition is “Know before Whom thou are standing.” Fostering this consciousness is very helpful for the attainment of peace of mind and general contentment. For through prayer and direct personal contact with the Al-mighty, one is reminded every day that G-d is not far away, in the Seventh Heaven, but is present and here, and His benevolent Providence extends to each and every one individually. This point has also been greatly emphasized by the Alter Rebbe in his book of Tanya, where he urges everyone to remember that “Behold, G-d is standing near him.” With this in mind, there is no room left for any anxiety or worry, as King David, the Sweet Singer of Israel, said, “G-d is my shepherd, I shall not want,” “G-d is with me, I shall not fear,” etc. Thus, this is no longer a theoretical idea, but becomes a personal experience in the everyday life.”
(Letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 10th of Iyar 5725)
4. Cultivate a Passionate, Warm, and Joyous Relationship with G-d
Accepting the struggle, putting in effort, and trusting G-d are all important. But there is one key element that serves as a context, a background for success in all of the above areas. And that is serving G-d with a sense of zest, passion, and joy.
It’s almost impossible to fight your impulses and desires as a “side-job”, alongside a lifeless Judaism. A lifeless Judaism, has nothing keeping you there. You’re committed to G-d but you’re what He means to you, you’re trying to live a life of spiritual fulfillment, but you’re not sure why. However when a person’s Judaism is filled with life, with depth, with passion, and warmth, something holds him from giving in in the face of opposition. Something keeps him there. And what keeps him there is the fact that he feels that he is in a relationship with G-d Himself. One of the ways to cultivate this is again, through prayer.
In addition, sometimes in order to eradicate a specific challenge, we don’t need to fight that challenge itself. Sometimes, when we elevate all other areas of our religious observance, the given challenge may dissipate on its own. We raise ourselves to a heightened spiritual level that certain behaviors simply don’t fit with the identity, with the relationship that we’ve cultivated.
There is a story in Torah which describes how the wife of Potiphar, a powerful and influential figure of Egypt, tried to seduce our Partriach Yosef into sinning with her. In the face of this challenge, it says that Yosef imagined the face of this father. Seeing his father’s holy face, reminded him of where he came from, who he was connected to and whose strength he held in those critical moments, and he was able to overcome. Sometimes all we need is to remember who we are. And the only way we will remember who we are is if we’ve cultivated enough of uncompromising and deep Jewish identity and a realization that we are bound to G-d, in heart, mind, body, and soul.
May we merit very soon, to usher in the Era of the Final Redemption, a time when all types of challenges will cease to exist, and we will rejoice in our everlasting relationship with our Creator, may it be now.
1 Maamer Ein Omdim L’Hispalel, from the Rebbe Rayatz
2 Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Habitachon Ch 1
3 Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXXVI, p. 1
4 Rabbi Getzel Rubashkin
5 Likkutei Sichos Vol 26, Parshas Bishalach
6 Likkutei Sichos III pg. 982