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.


  1. You write so poetically but still manage to relate to me. Thank you, keep writing!

  2. Now you may think that your friends are better off being in Crown Heights however I like to look at decisions similar to the way I look at moves in a chess game.

    Each move is good or bad based on how many moves ahead you are planing.

    Guys/gals moving to Crown Heights after seminary is something that I have watched more than once and from watching the same game over and over again I start to see a pattern.

    Even though I can't relate to your situation from experience but I can tell you what I was able to see as an outside observer watching year after year people coming from yeshiva/seminary to Crown heights and from the look in their eyes it seemed like they "drank the coolade" fast forward a year and what they thought to be exactly like the seminary they were at just on a larger scale turns out to be just a regular city with regular people and then I see them go from being inspired to disappointed.

    Watching it happen again and again from the sidelines your probably going to be allot better off in the Midwest.

    1. You're right- it's important to plan for the future realistically. However, I think that temporarily viewing the world through rose-colored glasses can also inspire positive change that otherwise may not have been possible. You could even argue that the "drinking the kool-aid" stage is a natural and necessary part of the process. The problem is never going beyond that stage and making destructive choices as a result. At the end of the day, everyone is where G-d wants them to be. At the moment, my friends who are in CH are meant to be there just as much as I'm meant to be here.