By Ayelet Skinner, Southfield, Michigan
First Place Winner of MyLife: Chassidus Applied 2019
No one really wants to discuss the fears they associate with aging; the reason I’m choosing a topic most dread is because Chassidus provides powerful tools for not only easing our deepest fears concerning aging, but shows us how we can turn those fears around to create a paradigm shift that will bring inner peace, deep joy and less wrinkles to boot. This does not require a lifetime of learning to understand. I will be explaining this in the simplest of terms, in the terms I myself understand. The method for creating this shift will be to look at Torah sources related to aging, then to look at the root philosophy of chassidus starting with the Baal Shem Tov, and finally, come to our Rebbe, the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s views, which are potent for this shift of thought.
Anti-aging marketing subtly suggests we can erase our deepest fears connected with aging, if we just erase those wrinkles. The rich and famous spend thousands on beauty procedures that promise the perpetual glow of youth. At one of the most advanced med spas in the United States, people concerned with aging come in for in-depth consultations on how to turn back the hands of time in a non-invasive manner. I know because have been doing anti-aging consultations at this multi-award winning med spa for many years. Consultations begin with a complexion analysis that measures surface and subsurface skin conditions. People want to restore the youthfulness they feel they’ve lost. With 40 laser and facial technologies, injectables, and non-surgical facelifts, teamed with naturopathic medicine, this clinic aims to fully integrate the inner and outer self. These treatments come with a hefty price. Those who come are more than happy to pay whatever it costs to buy back that younger version of themselves. Over a decade as a skincare advisor, I’ve often been asked, “What can I do about these wrinkles?” Let me tell you. The most powerful anti-aging secret I’ve ever heard have been passed down from generation to generation among the Jewish people.
Women consult with me saying, “My face is aging, my body is aging, and I am aging. Everything is going downhill.” Let’s question this. Is this true? Can you absolutely know that this thought is true?
What would you be without this thought? Chassidus teaches life is a partnership of body and soul. Each body is chosen and given by God and we have a responsibility to care for our bodies, yet Chassidus teaches that our true being and essence is not our body. The Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya Chapter 2, first opening statement, “The second soul of a Jew is truly a part of G-d above, as it is written, “And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. And “Thou didst breathe it (the soul) into me. Your soul exists beyond time as it is truly a part of G-d. Your soul is not aging! I’ve personally noticed that when I begin and end my day soul focused my priorities start to align with what is most important. My thoughts throughout the day become less material, more of what matters. My conversations with others deepen and often I’m told they are very therapeutic as well. This is a result of starting my day this way.
In Likkutei Sichot vol 5, p 93 the Rebbe quotes, “Sara retained the youthful beauty that she had regained before conceiving Isaac until her last days and she died completely righteous untainted by sin…the energy of her soul so totally permeated her body that it, like her soul, became timeless. Her beauty remained unmarred, immune to life’s tribulations and the passage of time. The perfection of her physical body was a manifestation of her spiritual perfection.” (Rashi Genesis 23:1, Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 23:1) Here we see that not only was Sara’s soul timeless, her body actually became timeless too as a result of the righteousness of her life. This is clearly a level beyond! It does teach us that our spirits clearly have an affect on our physical bodies. Which is true, otherwise Botox wouldn’t be a billion dollar drug!
Why do we age? The Torah tells us that aging is actually a gift given to us by our Patriarchs. In the Talmud, Bava Metzia, page 87, it says “Until Abraham there was no old age, whoever wished to speak to Abraham would speak to Isaac, and the reverse. Thereupon he prayed, and old age came into existence, as it is written, and Abraham was old and well-stricken in age. Until Jacob there was no illness; then Jacob prayed, and illness came into being.” Jacob asked for a sign before dying so that there would be some time to put affairs in order…and so the experience of the weakening of the body was given as a gift and a sign that one must begin to accomplish everything they want to accomplish. The gift of wrinkles is that they remind us of the preciousness of time. We can start to focus more internally with both others and ourselves. We can notice the qualities that we see in others that truly make them beautiful on a soul level, and focus on developing those qualities in ourselves as well. We can reassess our priorities and let go of those things that don’t contribute to the causes that mean the most to us. We can allow the beautiful characteristics within us to add to the dignity of our appearance as well. In Likkutei Dibburim, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn recalls “a most generous philanthropist addressed simply as Zalman Cherbiner-Zalman from Cherbin…By the time I knew him he was already some 70 years old, and the dignity of his appearance was indescribable. The lines of his face suggested that here was both an active mind, and a likeable and easygoing kindliness. All in all, he stands as one of the most respected personalities in my album of childhood memories.” I just love this description. The dignity of his appearance was indescribable! I want to look like that someday! To me this is such a refreshing perspective in contrast with our upside down youth obsessed society.
Let’s travel back in time now to 1698. In an old and humble village in a forgotten corner of Ukraine the father of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, was born. As an orphan, the first part of his life was spent in obscurity and poverty. His mother died when he was a still an infant. At age 7,he heard his father’s last words, “Israel my dear, know and remember throughout your life that Almighty G-d is always with you. Remember not to fear anything and anyone except for your Father in heaven. And remember also to love from the very core of your heart and soul every single Jew regardless who or what he may be.” These words accompanied and guided him throughout his life. It is recorded that he would wander into fields and forests and recognized there was a G-d from the wonders of creation. No doubt he listened to the whispering sound of tall meadow grasses, took deep breaths of the clean crisp breeze as it blew his hair and felt the sun warm his face. He realized that he lived in a magical reality, one where a tadpole becomes a frog, and an egg becomes a bird. He saw how day after day the very first rays of light dispelled the darkness of night. He was aware of the divine that surrounded him; it was extraordinary, deserving of awe. He observed that seeds, each formed with their own unique contribution, burst forth with the fullness of their divine potential. He marveled how each fruit contained an orchard that could continue to multiply itself. He noticed how the tiniest flowers opened their petals to the light that warms them, joining the buzzing symphony of the birds and bees. Everything was connected. After thinking thoughts like these at some point he would have closed his eyes and fell asleep in the meadow, peacefully cradled in nature’s embrace, warmed by the light of the sun, feeling his Father’s love. Day by day he grew with a heightened awareness of life’s connectedness. He understood the mystery that breathes behind things, his senses were heightened, the presence of the supernatural was accepted, understood, he was in it and part of it. Directed by his father’s words, he viewed the purity of intent in the blessings and songs of simple, devoted Jews as absolute holiness. He could see deeply into everyone, to his or her pure inner essence; he treated everyone wit respect and dignity. He came to make G-d more accessible to all. He brought comfort to a suffering nation and a bright light into the darkness. He showed how all people could serve G-d with simplicity, joy and purity of intent having respect for G-d, respect for creatures, and respect for one another. He compared the Torah to water and taught how it is important to keep the mitzvos with warmth and enthusiasm.
As the Baal Shem Tov saw as a boy, we live in a world where we see transformation all around us. Everything around us is in a constant state of growth. We are aware that for an acorn to become an oak tree the acorn has to disintegrate first. We are aware that caterpillars turn into butterflies, and know they shed their skin before the metamorphosis occurs. We know all that sleeps through winter is reborn in spring, and see how trees lose their leaves before they sleep. We are reminded every season of our lives. Yet somehow, as we age, we forget that we are also in the process of a completely marvelous transformation, that we are a piece of G-d, and each one of us has an active part in revealing more G-dliness in this world, we forget that we ourselves are transforming, and with each year, our souls are becoming stronger, more beautiful than before.
The stories of the Baal Shem Tov are sweet to me. I loved that he treated all with dignity, that he honored the hard working people with simple understanding. I identify with them; My limited understanding doesn’t limit my connection with the Divine.
Let’s take a leap forward to this century. On Nissan 11 5731 (March 26, 1972) the Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “I have been asked, “Now that you’ve reached 70 years isn’t it time to slow down and rest? The number of one’s years is irrelevant; the real question is: were those years utilized to the fullest? Every honest person knows he could have accomplished more in his youth, so now is the time to work with greater strength to double one’s achievements.”
On his 80thbirthday, April 1982,he said, “If a person has been given years by G-d, it is an indication that he has further things to achieve. Age cannot be used as an excuse to work less in one’s mission of revealing G-dliness in this world-which is associated with revealing humanity and decency of a person. When one is connected above, one does not fall below, he rises ever higher. He certainly gives us the strength to carry out His directives. A person is not alone, for his is connected to G-d, and through G-d,to all people. Everything came into existence by G-d and after that they remain completely dependent on G-d for he gives life to all existence and expects of them to unite and become one with the common purpose of serving Him together as one. In this way, with each passing year, one becomes younger and stronger for he is continuously increasing in good deeds.” This is a view of growth; life as a series of increasing gains. It stands in sharp contrast with traditional views.
On a blustery winter afternoon, I joined the newest hospice volunteer team as we met for our first day of training on the second floor of the social service agency. After introducing ourselves, we were each given a pen and 4 different color post it notes. On the first we were instructed to write down 4 passions or interests, on the second we named 4 valued possessions, on the third the names of 4 people, and on the fourth, 4 roles we had played in our lives. The instructor then walked around the circle we sat in and without reading anything we had written, she randomly crossed out some of the words we had thoughtfully put down. She circled once again, doing the same, which triggered tears from some. Then she told us to remove three of the four notes, and we were each left with one…and it was on this note that our discussion of life and aging, comfort, death and dying began. We fear losing the ability to enjoy our interests, the loss of positions and roles, we fear losing our most cherished possessions. Most of all, we fear losing and leaving the people we love. This is how death comes, she said, it is a series of hard losses, and this is what you will be walking into. We were then guided in how to help those on hospice draw up a living will.
I would like to contrast and challenge this traditional view in light of the Rebbe’s words. Life can be viewed as a series of losses at the end…or it can see as a series of gains, where our strength and worth increase daily. From our gifts comes a unique contribution, a contribution that leaves a brighter, kinder, warmer world than before we arrived. Our most valuable possessions are the good deeds we have done, which like children, grow, become our legacy, and are our treasures forever. We are not alone, we are connected forever. The Torah secret to never growing old is anchored in the awareness that we are ageless souls working together, harnessing the power of time to create a better world. Towards this goal, the morning and evening soul care routine that follows is one that has been practiced for thousands of years, and it works miraculously, beautifying those who use it from the inside out.
1. Thank God for your timeless soul the moment you wake and before you drift off to sleep; remember your soul is here in this world because you have a unique contribution to make. Like the Baal Shem Tov as a boy full of wonder, fully appreciate and elevate the simplest moments of your day with gratitude. Enter the world beyond time, where the past is gone, let it be, the future is unknown, and this moment is a new creation.
2. Initiate the alignment of your thought, speech and action with Torah. In Talmud Brachos page 61 side 2, Rabbi Akiva says that “a Jew without the Torah is like a fish without water.” Fit a few moments of learning into your morning. Chayenu has compiled daily shiurim in an easy to use mobile format I’ve found helpful. Even a small mental correction can make the difference in what can transpire over the course of a day; a ship that moves its course by 1% will end up in a completely different place. “Thinking is potent…Thought knows no bounds; no partition can stand in its way; at all times it reaches its required destination. It is known and certain that thinking bears fruit. (Likkutei Dibburim, Chapter 1, pg 1) “Accustom yourself to always speak with composure to every person in every circumstance…Examine your actions in the morning and the evening, then all your days will be filled with repentance.” (The Ramban’s Letter)
3. “Hamaaseh hu ha’ikur”- the deed is the essence, as the Rebbe said, quoting from Pirkei Avot, chapter 1, Mishna 17.“The Torah begins with chesed and ends with chesed.” (Rabbi Simlai in Talmud Sotah, page 14 side one.) Move towards the kindest thoughts that result in action. Do one small thing to add light to the world, a peaceful act of kindness, daily. Mishlei Chapter 3, verse17 “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her pathways are peaceful.” Be persistent with this one small practice every day. Remember that just like a seed that contains all that it needs to reach it’s full potential, you have all you need as well. Respect all life, bring compassion to creation every day, and help create a world of warmth and light. Proverbs 4:22 says, “For they (mitzvoth) are life to he who finds them, and healing for all his flesh.” Talmud Eruvin page 54, side one, says that Torah is an elixir of life. “In the dispensation of mortals, when a man administers a drug to a fellow it may be beneficial to one limb but injurious to another, but with the Holy One, blessed be He, it is not so. He gave a Torah to Israel and it is a drug of life for all his body, as it is said, And healing to all his flesh.” Focus on the divine mission that you have been endowed with, to reveal G-dliness in this world, bringing more light, more warmth wherever you are, utilizing whatever gifts you have been given for your unique contribution.
After many years in the field of aging I thought had a lot to say. However, I must confess that studying chassidus changed my thinking, at some points it humbled and touched me to tears. What I found in chassidus helped me grow personally. These thoughts are guiding me now on a daily basis and I see the fruits of it overflowing to clients. That is my reward! It has been an inspiring process which has left me wanting to learn more Chassidus. I also want to contribute to Torah education for girls, harnessing the power of skin to
mobilize the transformative beauty of the soul. Thank you!