Monday, July 29, 2013

Why You Should Never Be Satisfied

I've noticed that people often defend their frumkeit by claiming that observance has rendered them immune to many of the problems that face secular society. They point to the worldwide epidemic of emptiness and dissatisfaction and sigh, "If only they knew the Truth, they would feel whole and content and not go on these reckless searches for fulfillment. Judaism fills the void."

They couldn't be any more wrong.

Because if you are a truly pious person, you are never satisfied.

The more you learn about G-d, the more you realize you can never know Him. The more you appreciate G-d's infinity, the more sharply you are confronted by your finitude. The more knowledge you acquire, the more nuanced and complex your questions become.

The hole just grows bigger.

So don't think becoming religious is going to solve all your problems and allow you to sleep soundly at night. 

You're going to be more dissatisfied than ever before.

What's different is that this time, you won't be tormented by that feeling.
You'll fall in love with it.

Your doubts will energize you, your fears will drive you forward. The crazy notion of infinity that used to jolt your nervous system like nails on a chalkboard will now be your greatest comfort. When you study that discourse about the most hidden parts of G-d that He shows no one, you'll be smiling.

Your deepest pleasure will come not from the answers you find, but the mystery that remains.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Agony of (Non-)Existence

A few days ago, I stumbled across a beautiful article about the necessity of questioning your own existence. The author suggests that by doing so, we can free ourselves of emotional self-absorption and create space for G-d in our lives.

The article was moving, eloquent, and most importantly- true. But I couldn't totally relate to it. I don't always feel like I really exist. And I imagine that a lot of people feel the same way.

Let me explain. See, life has always felt a little alien. Contrived. An image superimposed on some other, truer reality. Like a shadow puppet performance against the backdrop of a lush, red curtain. What's behind the curtain? What goes on before the play? After? There is so much unseen, so much that no one knows and no one cares to talk about.

By the end of the show, everyone is bawling. Or rolling on the floor, laughing in hysterics. It dawns on me that maybe my emotions themselves are actors in the performance. They certainly don't feel real. After all, I can provide them with a new script and they reorient themselves at the discretion of my intellect.

The visceral feeling of existence should be enough to prove existence. But what if it's not? What if your problem is not that you are blinded by your own existence, but instead blinded by the fact that you know your existence isn't real? What if you live your life glazed over with apathy and uncertainty, incapable of committing yourself to anything? What do you do if you desperately want to feel that your existence is absolute just so you can be certain about something?

You might try to jolt yourself into awakeness through the euphoric experience of studying philosophy or listening to music. Or maybe, believing you'll never truly feel "alive," you surrender to the non-existence waiting for you with open arms where the sidewalk ends. You may find meaning in detachment, turning to a life of contemplation and detective work.

People tell you that by engaging in the world, by affecting it through action, you will become aware of the significance of your life. Transform yourself from the outside in. You'll start to care about your existence, because you realize you have a responsibility to G-d. Only through embracing your temporary, perceived existence can you reveal the scope of G-d's actual existence. So, just do what you're supposed to do and everything will be fine.

Wise words. But for those who can't get a grip on the fact that everything "contrived" is contrived with G-dly intention and therefore truth also lies within physicality and subjectivity, action is much more difficult than it sounds.

I don't have an answer to this dilemma. What I do have is a description of a phenomenon that I've observed in myself and in other people. In my opinion, people tend to possess one of two existential orientations, meaning that they relate in different ways to the notion of existence. This relationship affects behavioral and coping patterns as well as perception of G-d. I'll call the first perceptual orientation "quasi-existence," and its mirror-image counterpart "invested existence." The point of providing these descriptions is not to put people in boxes- these categories are general trends that I've observed and are by no means absolute nor comprehensive. It's more to give a language to a pre-existing experience and allot people a sharper awareness of how it affects them so they can ultimately overcome their "box." Here is a rough overview of my theory:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Portrait of Moshiach, Pre-Revelation

This piece is what resulted when I tried to put myself inside the mind of Moshiach. As absurd as that may sound, that's where my imagination led me, so I just went with it. I admit that I felt like I was doing a "bad" thing by writing a "first-person" account. I felt like it wasn't my place (or anyone's, for that matter) to attempt to represent Moshiach from the inside out, when really we know nothing about him. It's impossible for me to look through his eyes, when he sees only G-d and I see everything but G-d. I'm afraid my portrayal will be a terrible insult to him. Maybe I'm portraying him as too human? Not human enough?

No one can really answer that. We can only wonder and dream and yearn without bounds. In the end I decided it would be good to post this, because the more we think about his arrival, the more real the redemption will become. 


I arrived yesterday.

Never before have I felt so drawn to a place, as though I lived here in another time. The texture of this life feels...familiar. I'm so far from home, and yet the light shines just the same here. If I didn't know any better, I'd think I never descended from my lofty abode at all. But here I am, a pint-sized messenger of the One above, cleverly fitted with sneakers and a toothy grin.

Life is difficult for people here. Everyone groans, "Oyy, nebach. Look at this fleshy existence, this barren desert. How repulsive to G-d we must be, in this dysfunctional cocoon of a body that is supposed to sprout wings. But they are mere stubs- pathetic little knobby things that only weigh us down. When will we see the sky?"

I'm absolved of my own struggles, but I take on theirs. I feel their sadness, their hunger. Others drag their feet in servitude to their apathy. A narrow beam of light trickles through their gritted teeth. Its rays overcome my senses like a headlight in a dust storm, yet they are numb to its heat. As their souls croon sweet melodies, the prayers of their lips remain embittered.

There is a purity within each person, a simplicity stowed away in a dark place inside. An infinite potential. But they are blinded by a simulated existence, confined by finitude. They have no idea who they really are.

That's why I'm here, I suppose. I'm here to irrigate the world with G-dly vision; to help water their wings. To bridge the gap between potential and reality, desire and fulfillment.

But it's not time yet.

I live among them, waiting. Working. In fact, you and I spoke yesterday.

We were in the library, swapping thoughts for a bit. You preached about Moshiach a lot. I couldn't really agree or disagree, I just nodded softly. Then you curled up with one of those mystical books, fiercely attempting to understand its content.

My gaze drifted to the hardwood floor, studying its current, humbled by the life force within it. I am fully conscious of the compressed Divine light all around us, beneath us, inside us. Why, though? Who am I to see G-d in things so far from His essence?

Why not you?

I feel your eyes lift in my direction. You mumble something, but the words fall dead and flat on your lips. You don't believe what you say. "May we one day consciously experience true revealed Godliness at every moment, in tables and chairs and heavens and musty boxes in the attic."

I respond "Amen." Truly.

You read aloud some more, but it is garbled. As I retreat back into my shadowy mind, your voice is reduced to an empty ring in the distance.

If only you knew the weight of your words.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why I Want You to Argue With Me

"What is up with this Chabad business?"

It's the question everyone is dying to ask me: Wasn't I content with "normal" Orthodoxy? Wasn't I fulfilled by what the community had to offer? If I was looking for something else, did I really have to choose Chabad?

And I would love to tell them about my journey. But they keep their mouths shut, tiptoeing around our differences. Afraid of our differences.

They are incredibly polite. Perfect diplomats, they are. But it's all fake. Because they're only willing to receive and acknowledge the part of me that makes them feel comfortable. Our connection never breaches the external layer.

Imagine if we relied on this approach to build a relationship with the Almighty. I'll let you into my life, G-d. Maybe I'll do some mitzvos. But...I don't really like your views, so let's just make small talk, okay?

That is no relationship! That is neither an expression of unity nor commitment.

G-d chose us as His own, with full awareness that we're lightyears different from Him! He knew we'd butt heads with Him once in a while, that we'd forget Him, and that we'd be confused about our relationship with Him. But He wants us- He wants every part of us. Differences are inconsequential. At the end of the day, we are one.

Likewise, we are one people. One singular entity with its source in the Almighty. No matter how different we may seem on the outside, no disagreement can threaten that essential unity. 

The fact that you don't want to challenge me makes me suspect you don't really believe we're one. You don't believe our relationship is unshakeable. Brothers and sisters bicker with each other because they are siblings. Because they know that will never change. We need to start acting like a family!

What I want to see among Jewish communities is that we try to receive each other completely, in all of our conflicting perspectives and feelings. Rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash isn't just about expelling lashon hara from our lives. It's about appreciating one another for who we are- not just who we pretend to be to keep the peace.

So please- let loose. Criticize me and lecture me about my hashkafic leanings all you want. At least you'd be yelling at the real me.

After all, we can't even begin to appreciate each other if we don't really know each other.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Flaw in Perfection

Nobody ever wants to read my writing.

Not because it's boring, or poorly structured, or lacking in decent vocabulary. To my knowledge, my writing is not deficient in any of these areas.

Rather, the problem is one of abundance.

See, any time I get an idea, I develop it to the fullest extent possible. That's just my nature. I'm a perfectionist. If I'm discussing a particular concept that I realize contains a parallel to another concept, I don't view that relationship as merely a "fun fact" or the cherry on top of the sundae. The way concepts relate to each other is reflective of an innate quality in each individal concept. Only after a meticulous exploration of that relationship do I feel I understand the concept itself.

As a result, my writing goes on forever. And then when you think "forever" has ended its term, it keeps going

I feel strongly that my outward expression should match my inward process. Therefore, my essays are equally as thorough as my contemplation of a subject. If I held back for the sake of brevity, I would feel "bad" for all those unacknowledged dimensions of the concept. They trusted me. They allowed me to know them. The least I could do is give them some credit. Set them free. Instead, I exploited their vulnerability for the sake of building up my own understanding. I would now wrap them up and let them decay somewhere inside the folds of my brain. How could I be so heartless?

Well, if that's heartless, then G-d is a downright sociopath.

Think about it: He's the biggest knowledge hoarder on the planet.

His wisdom spans for infinity, but He keeps it locked away. His insides don't match His appearance. He struts around in this ridiculous costume of nature, playing a childish game of hide-and-go seek when we know He's so much more than that!!

So we get frustrated and we yell at Him because He's keeping us in the dark. 

But really, He's doing us a favor.

He's allowing us to internalize G-dliness in a digestible dosage. He's ensuring that we continue to exist, that our souls don't catapult out of our bodies.

In a way, expressing Himself completely would be a million times more selfish than holding Himself back. It would knock us out of the picture in an instant. G-d's entire purpose would be to flaunt Himself, basking in His glory to generate His own feelings of self-actualization. But no one would be there to receive what He has to give.

Limiting Himself is what allows G-d to give to us. To share. To grant us the opportunity to take part in His wisdom (allbeit it only a fraction of its true scope) and use it to elevate our surroundings.

So I guess if I want to make any impact at all, I have to hold myself back. If I'm going to have compassion, it should be directed toward humanity rather than ideas. If all I want to do is experience the satisfaction of expressing myself, fine. I can keep writing each blog entry as though it were a thesis.

If you've read this far, I guess that means I've already made some progress.

An Ode to Chassidus

Yes, I am a nerdy BT who wrote a love poem to Chassidus. A passionate one.
I really wasn't sure if I wanted to post this. I feel like it exposes my insides and my weirdness more than I would like. But on the offchance that somebody can appreciate this and relate to it, here it is:

You zoom in on
that wavers on the edge of my
then you stretch it out like silly putty to examine every nuance, every crevice.
You give a voice
to all my unarticulated impressions about reality,
about myself,
about my soul.
Things I knew on a certain level, but never

You make me feel like
My reality
and G-d's reality
aren't so incompatible.
For the first time,
I feel like He gets me.

And then I feel all warm and fuzzy and
with G-d.
G-d chose to design reality like this?
But that was my idea!"
And I know the cosmic bond between Him and me is more than just a

Then you zoom out.
You remind me that my intellect
is an illusion,
My understanding a soggy dream,
entirely insignificant
in light of the One True

This love poem doesn't exist.

Is this love even real?
Or was it born
From the kelipos?
Do I adore you so
Only because
I crave the sensation of neurons firing,
Concepts solidifying?

Without you,
Falsehood would reign within me.
With you,
It still does.
But at least Truth now keeps it company.
Because you dug it out of its hiding place inside me.

Even if my love isn't real,
At least you gave me something real to love.

Thank you.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Shlichus by Diffusion

I used to love being a Shabbos guest.

Who doesn't love being served a delicious home-made meal on a little island called "Shabbos" where all weekday stressors dissolve? When I first became observant, Shabbos was more about absorbing the benefits of the environment than it was about helping to create the environment. I just showed up, smiled politely, and made sure to express gratitude to my host.

Then, I went to seminary. For the first time, I wasn't a guest. I was a member. Each girl made the atmosphere by contributing with her unique qualities. We weren't taking anything- we were only giving and receiving. In my mind, that's how it should be. So when the semester ended, I returned home with a resolution. I was going to be more active, more influential. More vocal. Because I knew I had things to share- seminary helped me realize that. The validation, encouragement, and endless compliments I received from my peers regarding my writing and speaking abilities made it clear that I needed to stop being passive. I needed to use my talents to contribute to and elevate my surroundings.

But what I found in the community at home was a bit...disheartening. People weren't all that receptive to what I had to contribute. They just wanted to be my Shluchim, and I was just expected to blend in. To be a guest. They were the givers, I was the taker. And as much as I tried to break out of that mold, I felt like everyone kept forcing me back into it.

My neutral exterior would never have given away what I was feeling on the inside: Internally, I was stamping my feet on the hardwood floor and wildly waving my arms over my head, screaming, "Look! Look what I have to offer you!" I imagined that my hostess would glide across the room and plop a piece of potato kugel on my plate, her face an expressionless mask. "But look at what I have for you," she cooed. In my mind, an unspoken war was rippling between me and my shabbos hosts.

One week, I was granted refuge from my usual Shabbos routine. I caught a train out of Chicago to meet my family. We were vacationing in Door County, a sparsely populated haven of forests nestled on the shore of Wisconsin's peninsula. Around mincha time on Shabbos day, my family took a dinner reservation, whereupon I was left alone in the cabin. Naturally, I made a beeline for the rooftop porch. I spread out a blanket, read my Tehillim and hummed niggunim to a delighted audience of oak trees. I kind of felt like I was in a Baal Shem Tov story: Inhaling the fresh forest air, humbled by the dense silence of the woods. 

I've always possessed a childlike love for nature. Combine that with a cup of solitude, and you've got my ideal Shabbos afternoon. There is something magical about the forest. You can almost feel G-d's breath churning within the trees, His smile warming them into existence. He stretches His arm into their frail branches as if they were gloves. With a surge of G-dly energy and assurance, they grasp for the sky.

photo credit:

Nature is so uncontrived, so unassuming. It speaks only through being. It doesn't impose itself- it has no self. It's just a conveyor for G-dliness. It just is. We're always taught to contemplate nature, in all of its minute details, to arrive at an appreciation of G-d's oneness. But I feel like I don't even have to contemplate. I just feel G-d by diffusion. Just being in the presence of an existence that doesn't think it has an existence is more powerful than any mental contemplation I could do.

That's when I realized that the trees unknowingly personified the answer to my frustration.

Nature has tremendous power over the human psyche. It changes people- You retreat into the forest and come out with a whole new perspective. And yet- nature does nothing. Trees don't thresh their branches around and make a bunch of noise to get someone's attention. And that's precisely what makes them so effective and so magnetic. Nature just embodies the will of its creator. That's the most contagious quality imaginable. 

This is the level of essence. Of humility. It's what we all need to strive for. We're all just guests at G-d's table, endowed with a beautiful mission that we didn't do anything to deserve. Don't focus on the fact that YOU have something to share. First of all, we're not that great. Second, fixation on the self and its actualization distracts from the actualization of G-d's will. Instead, focus on WHAT you have to share and WHY it's important. 

Finally, to be a shliach or shlucha not only means to educate others explicitly, but to influence by diffusion: If your perspective is a G-dly one, it will transmit a clear message to those around you- even as you sit and enjoy your potato kugel.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Why Judaism is Pure Torture

People often think of religion as constrictive. As if some higher authority is towering over me, cuffing my hands behind my back and threatening that if I break free, I'll be hurled into the unforgiving grips of the underworld.

That's pretty scary, if you ask me. Not to mention inaccurate. But what's even scarier is the possibility that the opposite could be true:

Maybe, we're oppressing G-d.

Now, I know you're going to say that G-d is all-powerful and we can't affect Him, but forget about that for a minute.

Sometimes I wonder if G-d feels like He's in a strait jacket. After all, He's been dreaming and scheming for eternity but can't fulfill His plans for Moshiach. WE keep constricting Him, suffocating Him with our own agendas. All this craziness in the world is a manifestation of G-d's inner turmoil, His disturbed equilibrium. He's writhing like a snake suffering from a fit of seizures, desperately trying to express Himself! All He wants is to show Himself through His creations rather than hide behind them. 

Is G-d not the ultimate tortured artist?

And if so...where is our compassion?

Existence Under Construction

For me, writing isn't about putting my pen to paper and letting ideas flow out. My creative process is not nearly that glamorous. Rather, I'm usually hunched over my lap top at 1 am, my face contorted like a cauliflour as I study an invisible blob of ideas hovering over the keypad. I painstakingly organize them into a logical progression, extracting the necessary from the extraneous, the profound from the cliché, only to go back and rearrange my argument all over again. Insert a few phrases here, delete, delete. Rework an entire paragraph. Delete, delete, delete. Select all, delete.

Any segment of my writing that I deem to be of lesser value is acknowledged for barely a millisecond before it is discarded, only to be swallowed by the interweb where it is never to be fathomed again.

And then I have a final product, polished and shiny and intentional down to each syllabic rhythm. I forget the screw-ups even existed. All the errors fall away from my self-definition as swiftly as those unchosen words dissolve into cyberspace. I start to fool myself into thinking I'm a writer, when really I'm just a very determined mad scientist who persists through twelve hundred rounds of conceptual trial and error. This is the beauty (or downfall?) of technology: This instantaneous power of revision protects me from fixating on the parts of my work- and of myself- that just didn't make the cut.

It appears that technology, when employed as an artistic tool, can and does affect our self-esteem and self-definition. But is this a vice or a virtue?

Last week's parsha might provide some insight on this matter. Matos-Masei documented the Jews' travels out of Mitzrayim. And when I say "documented," I mean really documented. Every single resting place was included in the account, most of which appeared to serve as merely a means to an end. But the Torah acknowledges all 42 encampments. Torah gives them a voice, bringing to light their intrinsic value that could have easily gone overlooked. Each place serves a critical purpose by contributing to a larger process, the significance of which must not be ignored. 

Every detail of the journey is our Divine destiny just as much as is the ultimate destination.

This is precisely why I chose to first write this essay the old fashioned way: With pen and paper. All those mistakes will linger a bit longer in my mind as I clamp my teeth down on my pen and consider whether scribbling things out is worth the effort and the mess. That permanent smudge on the paper gives life to the journey, including the road not taken- but whose encounter paves the way for my eventual finished product. Every "mistake" speaks as eloquently as its revision. 

We're all just under construction, and for whatever reason G-d really likes it that way. If he didn't, he wouldn't keep sustaining us. The "I" of every moment is nurtured only by Divine intention. Therefore, true self-esteem cannot be contingent solely on the quality of your final draft or the filtered, perfect self you present to the outside. It requires embracing your PROCESS and your HUMANITY.

So make yourself vulnerable. 
Let people see your flaws. 
Give them something to rebuke you about. 

Because we're not computers. We're much more than just our output. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Navigating the World Intuitively

At the close of my seminary semester, my classmates embarked on a mass pilgrimage to Crown Heights.

Equipped with their overpacked suitcases and Chassidus shiurim on their ipods, they gathered their innermost strength and resolved to begin anew in a frum community. They planted themselves in schools, high school dormitories, Chabad houses, Jewish educational organizations- anywhere they could hold an influential position devoted to cultivating the spiritual wellbeing of the Jewish people.

As for me? I traveled back to the Midwest, stayed in my parents' house for the summer, and then entered graduate school in a neighboring city.

I have to admit, I was a little jealous of my peers. It seemed they were in a nurturing environment that facilitated their Jewish development. I was halfway across the planet, totally unsure as to whether I belonged here and whether my academic pursuits contributed to my Divine service. But I had made a commitment to earn a viable degree. Furthermore, I believe G-d endowed me with certain unique qualities that must be employed. I've known for pretty much forever that I'm cut out to be a mental health professional. I would hate to squander that potential.

So, I made due with the situation. I traveled an hour by bus several times each week to attend maamer and sicha classes. I regularly "skype-farbrenged" with my friends from seminary. My new mantra became "A Chassid creates an environment."

But as much as I tried to remind myself that Shlichos can take place anywhere and building a Dirah Betachtonim is not limited to time or place, I was still a bit ambivalent regarding my participation in the graduate program. Not because I felt my studies opposed Yiddishkeit, but because I simply didn't know how to evaluate the philosophies being taught. Were the counseling approaches advancing or inhibiting the fulfillment of G-d's ultimate plan? Did Freud's theories parallel Chassidus, or oppose it? Each time I tried to understand the in's and out's of the various methodologies, the more frustrated I became. They certainly didn't oppose Torah, but they didn't seem to fit into it either.

I find that when I'm learning anything, I feel intellectually satisfied only when I can visualize how seemingly unrelated concepts parallel or contradict each other. But in this case, I couldn't seem to do that. In my mind, there was simply a lack of relationship. Or maybe, there was one so convoluted I couldn't formulate a clear mental image. I really didn't know. I was entirely distraught over the fact that I would be spending my professional life working toward something that I wasn't even sure reflected truth.

Then, like a flicker of sunlight in a painfully dreary afternoon, I had an experience that completely reoriented my thought process. It was one of those unforgettable "Aha!" moments when hashgacha pratis pounces on you like a hyperactive canine. You jolt into awakeness, greeted by it's sloppy grin. You can't help but feel that the universe is chuckling to itself, privately amused that you didn't see G-d's hand sooner.

Here's what happened: I came across a "My Encounter" segment from the weekly Living Torah episode. In this testimonial, a woman told a story of how she had written a letter to the Rebbe regarding a shidduch. As a sidenote, she mentioned that she was pursuing a Master's degree in Marriage and Family Counseling. She attested that this was just her "secular" job. Her "real" job- which she felt was her true calling- was being a Shlucha, assisting the Chabad House near her campus by hosting young women for shabbos. When the woman received the Rebbe's response to her letter, she noticed he made a correction to the phrase "secular job": The Rebbe had crossed out "secular" and wrote, "Healing the souls of children is Shlichus, too."

Upon hearing this, a surge of warmth radiated from my diaphragm up to my cheekbones, eliciting a contented smile. I now realized where I had erred in my thinking.

My mistake was thinking, period. I had been trying so desperately to determine whether these theories of counseling fit into my pre-existing ideological framework that I neglected to see the situation for what it truly was. I was so obsessed with how these methodologies work that I lost sight of why they are being implemented in the first place. The truth is that every counseling approach is intended to promote healing. In my work, I give people the tools to live in a meaningful way, create healthy relationships, and stretch beyond their comfort zone for the sake of their own and others' wellbeing. I don't explicitly talk about G-d unless they initiate that type of conversation- but certainly, healing their animal soul will relieve them of preoccupation with their own struggles and increase their receptivity to G-dliness in the long run.

The Rebbe didn't offer an argument for why or how counseling can be considered holy work. Look at what it does- it heals people. That's good. Period. It doesn't always take a genius to distinguish between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Sometimes, you have to take a step back and base your judgment on your gut feeling. Stop analyzing for a second. Stop intellectualizing. There are times when you can scan a situation intuitively and just KNOW. Intellect is a powerful and beautiful tool- but sometimes we need to release ourselves from its grip. G-d gave us truth detectors. Let's use them. 

Finally, I came to accept that uncertainty is healthy. I know my friends in Crown Heights experience this feeling to the same extent as I do- no one is immune. But it's my energizer bunny. It drives my questions, it propels me across town to that late-night Chassidus class, and most importantly: It adds depth and complexity to my relationship with G-d.

There's a lot I still don't understand, but I like to think I'm moving in the right direction. To my friends' disappointment, I won't be moving to Crown Heights just yet. But for now, I'm okay with that. I have a lot of important work to do right where I am.