Friday, June 28, 2013

Finding my Truth

I'd like to share an essay that I wrote right after Gimmel Tammuz. Although it was posted on my other blog, I feel it belongs here too because it symbolizes a personal turning point. The direction that my writing takes from this point forward will reflect many of the realizations that I documented in that post. So here it is:

I was recently confronted with a question of belief.

My sister and I were lazing around one afternoon in July. It was one of those sourly unremarkable days that requires some sort of whimsical endeavor just to keep us from melting into monochromatic blobs. So we hoisted ourselves up onto the nearly ancient swing set that stood in our backyard, its structure still poised as ever and not even that splintery. Just as we had done as children, we positioned ourselves side by side with our legs dangling from the ledge of the lower platform. We sat tracing figure eights in those pesky patches of dirt beneath our sneakers, interspersedly philosophizing about everything and nothing like we always do.

Sharlotte furrowed her brow. “What do you think is the purpose of life?" She kneaded a clump of earth with her shoe, haphazardly dislodging it from its habitat. “And how do you fulfill it by, like, doing mitzvos and stuff?"

I beamed. “That’s a very important question," I remarked dispassionately, in an effort to conceal the admiration I felt toward this precocious and thoughtful 16-year-old.

My knee-jerk reaction was, of course, to teach her all about building the Dirah Betachtonim- constructing a dwelling place for G-d in this world- and to do so through Torah and mitzvos, in a way of pure love and self-sacrifice. By actualizing G-d’s will, we reveal Him here on earth.

So that’s what I did. I thoroughly presented the idea, in all of its beauty and drama and mystery, employing a number of parables to reinforce its message. I chose my words carefully, intending to articulate this foundational Chassidic concept as vividly as possible.

After I concluded, Sharlotte got all squinty-eyed like she does when she’s thinking really hard about something, staring into space at nothing in particular. “Do you actually believe that?"

It didn’t take me long to realize what Sharlotte was asking me. She wasn’t asking what the Torah teaches. Nor was she criticizing the Torah standpoint in her unimpressed response. She was simply asking what I believe- what I personally believe. She wasn’t satifisfied with my answer, because really all it demonstrated was that I’m awfully good at parroting what I learn.

In psychology, this is called confluence: Absorbing the values of an ideology until what you should believe and what you actually believe coalesce into very well blended slushie. Your present self is shrouded by a romanticized self, silencing your honest appraisal of situations as an individual.

I’ve always been aware of this dichotomy within myself: craving objectivity, yet somehow trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m human- and rejecting my humanity in the process. I never valued my subjective beliefs- after all, what’s the point of believing something that’s not true? My choice to begin expressing Judaism more in my life was not a search for meaning. I had always regarded it, first and foremost, as a pronouncement of truth, and only from that truth could meaning eventually flourish.

Really, though, if you take a look at Jewish belief, the subjective human component is an integral part of the system of reality. It is we, in all of our flaws and limitations, who hold the key to Moshiach. The fact that we can immerse ourselves in Chassidic texts for years at a time- and still not truly believe that a Dirah Betachtonim is possible- is what sets the stage for kabbalos ol (receiving the yoke of heaven) and an avodah of uphill striving. If we perceived the truth of G-d, we would be angels. Things would be easy; there would be no movement. But not perceiving it and doing mitzvos anyway is truly impressive. It’s complete selflessness, to which even angels are not privy. In a way, there is heightened potential in blindness that is squandered when vision is introduced.

But blindness is far from the ultimate. Just because, in our ignorance, we are protected from selfishness doesn’t mean we have become selfless. A genuinely selfless person perceives G-d, loves G-d, and really, truly lives the words of Chassidus while still managing to serve G-d without self-serving motivations. The human self experiences, and yet its G-dly actions are not motivated by that experience. Most importantly, the self is not repressed as it is in the case of confluence. Instead, the subjective self fully knows and believes the truth of the objective reality.

The result is an individual whose animal self and G-dly self live in perfect harmony. I used to think this meant that the inner experiences of tzaddikim transcend emotion. Actually, the opposite is true: The emotions they feel are real emotions, more real than we could ever know- because they are reflective of spiritual storms rather than physical ones.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose yartzeit falls today, fully embodies this ideal: Through his example, I was shown that Chassidus is not something to which a person merely “subscribes." Chassidus is not a collection of concepts intended to cling to the peripheries of the intellect and never flow into the heart. Instead, it should permeate the most human parts of us, all those neglected nooks and crannies that rarely see the light of day. The Rebbe’s entire consciousness is one with his Chassidus, with his people, and with G-d. This oneness permeates thought, emotion, speech, and action down to every human detail, expressing itself in the furthest reaching kindness and positive influence imaginable.

When I think about the Rebbe’s sincerity, the last thing I want is to delude myself into thinking I believe in the teachings of Chassidus, when really I just wish I did, because Chassidus relieves my intellectual tension as I wrestle with the contradictions of human existence. To be a Chassid means being completely honest with yourself. As such, sometimes being slapped in the face by your own humanity can be a good thing. Because if you’re not honest with yourself, you can’t be honest with G-d.

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And that’s the truth. That’s my truth. I felt that in those moments, I had approached the honesty of the child I had once been, the child whose summers were spent on this very playset, the only reality being the wind in my hair and the anxious knot in my belly as the swing gained momentum. Back then, I just felt things. I liked things, or disliked them. I didn’t think about what I should or shouldn’t believe.

I breathed in deeply, followed by an exhale that sounded more like a sigh. I turned toward Sharlotte, who was patiently studying a blade of grass as she waited for me to formulate my answer. What a special kid.

"I don’t know what I believe," I began tentatively. After a second, I looked her straight in the eye. “I just know what I want to believe. And I look to the Rebbe to help me achieve that."

My sister nodded in understanding. I think she really got it.

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