Friday, August 23, 2013

Chai Elul: Embrace the Details

Today I was sitting in one of my graduate courses, bored out of my mind. I had learned the majority of the content in a previous class, allbeit in a very general sense, and I saw no reason to fixate on the multitude of "fascinating" details my professor was drooling about. I knew my basic familiarity with the concepts would still permit an A on the final. But the teacher insisted on gnawing each detail to shreds, the original concept now fragmented into a hundred entities that bore no resemblance to their original singular form.

So rather than listen to my teacher drone on for the next two hours and forty minutes, I decided to buy time (and stay awake) by preparing a Dvar Torah for the coming shabbos. I quickly became engrossed in a sicha (a speech) I found online (thank G-d for the internet!) about Chai Elul, the date on which both the Baal Shem Tov and Alter Rebbe were born. These leaders founded revolutionary movements in Judaism: The Baal Shem Tov revealed the deeper, mystical dimension underlying Torah, and from that grew the Alter Rebbe's Chabad movement, a more intellectual application of the former.

The sicha quoted the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, who gave over two versions of an aphorism: "Chai Elul is the day which infuses vitality into Elul" and "Chai Elul is the day which infuses vitality into the Divine service of 'I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.'"

There are layers of meaning embedded in these phrases. What I'd like to focus on is the fact that the first aphorism speaks about Chai Elul energizing our Divine service in a general sense, accounting for any and every aspect of human-G-d interaction that occurs during Elul. In contrast, the second version specifies that Chai Elul enlivens our Divine service in a particular way, arousing us to approach G-d in the specific manner of "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."

The mode of Divine service specified in the second aphorism is by default included within the first. The energy of Chai Elul is equally diffused throughout all aspects of avodah, naturally including "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." So why the repetition? Why emphasize a detail that is already so obvious it should require no explanation?

In truth, details are more than just details. Their value extends beyond the fact that they are included within a significant main idea. Take Torah study, for example. Diving into the particulars of a topic not only substantiates one's understanding of the original idea, but it actually generates new knowledge. The process of exerting your intellect to understand the inner workings of an idea churns up a new experience inside you. New ideas are born, new feelings arise, a new perspective on G-d consolidates inside the psyche. Your new outlook motivates action. You commit to G-d and serve Him with sincerity. These developments must be preceded by a certain complexity of understanding.

The apparent repetition in the second version of the aphorism reminds us that feeling connected to G-d in a general sense is not enough. Divine service isn't only about acknowledging that vague, mysterious feeling that G-d is guiding your life. It's about understanding why you have that feeling, where it comes from, and what you're supposed to do with it. It means changing yourself so that you can change the world and change G-d's presence in the world. And in order to do all that, you have to REALLY understand G-d and REALLY understand His world. Only by knowing Him intimately through intellectual exertion can change flourish.

Sitting in class at that moment, I realized that I have a choice. I can go about life in one of two ways: I can seek the minimum knowledge necessary to get by. I can ace my counseling practicum without ever opening a textbook, without investing an ounce more effort than absolutely necessary. But will I really be able to help people? Will my expertise dwindle to mere "expertise," a bullet-point understanding of how things should be but with no real tools to make them that way?

Or, I can invest in a mission. I can formulate meaningful conclusions about how to transform the world using the detailed information I've absorbed.

Rather than letting yourself become "bored out of your mind," delve into your mind for a change. Details are only boring until you really think about them.

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