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Do You Live Life or Does Life Live You?


by Yochanan Ress

MyLife Essay Contest

You can either live by design or by default.

There is a choice.

In psychological terminology often used in the context of personal mastery, one can live from an ‘internal locus of control’ or an ‘external locus of control’. The former means that you are empowered by the realisation that you do have an ability to affect the world around you and shape your life’s destiny in some way. The latter means that you live more from a victim mentality and believe that there is nothing you can do to change your situation – often what underlies conditions such as Addiction and Depression – two of the most prevalent conditions plaguing most of the modern Western world today and the stats are shocking.

What’s quite amazing is how much such a model is now supported by the scientific paradigm of quantum physics, which has proved that our own power of ‘observation’ and level of consciousness literally shapes the world and reality around us.

What’s even more amazing, is that over two centuries ago – way before any of the above models where even dreamed up, the Holy Baal Shem Tov – the founder of the Chassidic movement – taught that ‘In the place of a man’s thoughts – that is where he is’.

There is a hint to this truth even from a great many centuries before that – in the teachings of the Talmud. The Mishna in Sanhedrin (4:5) teaches that every person is obligated to state that ‘Bishvili Nivra HaOlam’ – ‘For me, the world was created’. But the Hebrew word ‘Shvil’ also means ‘pathway’. So read on a deeper level, this could also mean ‘According to my pathway (of thought, consciousness) my world (reality) is created!’

Judaism is one of the most empowering spiritual paths. Especially as it is illuminated through the prisms of Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) and Chassidus. Our actions really matter. We really matter. A seemingly small act that we do down here in this lowest and darkest world, has cosmic reverberations all the way up to the highest levels.

In fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe in an incredibly profound discourse on Purim in 1988 (which in many ways has a remarkable resonance with the recent scientific phenomenon known as ‘Lucid Dreaming’) establishes this very fundamental reality and illustrates it from several different angles.

The Hebrew word for man is ‘Adam’ which is related to the word ‘Adama’ – ‘Earth’ from which we were created and to which we return. But that word also has another meaning in its root. ‘Adameh’ means ‘I will be similar to’ and we are taught in several sources (including the Shaloh HaKadosh) that this is a reference to ‘Adameh L’Elyon’ – ‘I will be similar to the supernal realm’.

The Rebbe then quotes the Zohar part II which states ‘the Upper Realm is similar to (or follows) the lower realm’. So what’s fascinating here is that you have a reciprocal reflection: man emulates Heaven and Heaven also emulates man. So again, we have this incredibly empowering principle: that the way that we conduct ourselves down here, affects not only our own immediate environment but even has impact all the way up to the Heavens!

The Maggid of Mezritch – the successor of the Holy Baal Shem Tov, translated a line from ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ in a classic Chassidic manner – punctuating it differently to uncover a whole universe of deeper meaning from a verse that is talking on a very different level. The beginning Mishna of chapter 2 says ‘Da Ma LeMa’ala MiMach’ – ‘Know what is above you’, simply meaning be aware of the Omniscient Divine Presence observing all your actions. But if you punctuate it slightly differently, it reads ‘Know that (all) that is Above – is from you!’

Again, we have the concept that our actions are so powerful that they ripple outwards and upwards reaching the ultimate heights. The Rebbe elsewhere in a talk explains this beautifully with the metaphor of a lever. If for example, you wish to lift up a rather solid building or a structure, you cannot do it from the top or the middle. You have to get right to the bottom and lift that, and you will then simultaneously elevate the entire structure on all levels.

So when we elevate and come close to G-d from down here, we are thereby raising not only ourselves but the entire framework of creation! That really illustrates the Mishna that says ‘For me, the entire world was created’…

We know that Judaism at its core is based on the gift of ‘free choice’ that G-d has bestowed on us. The capacity to create with our minds, hearts and mouths. If we are created in the ‘Image of G-d’, then just as G-d creates with Divine Speech, we have to be exceptionally mindful of the power we have with our speech that derives from our thoughts and feelings.

In Kabbalah, the various shapes of the different Hebrew letters represent different channels of the Divine Light that is used in creation. They are literally the building blocks of both the spiritual and physical worlds. In fact the first word of the Torah – the blueprint of creation, consisting of Hebrew letters is ‘Bereishit’. You can break that up into many different possible permutations (and a lot has been written about that in the mystical works) but one possible one is two words: ‘Shirat Av’ which can either be read as ‘The song of the Father’ or ‘The song of the Alef-Bet’. The Torah is called a song in Deuteronomy by the very last commandment to right a Torah scroll. So the Torah with all its letters is a beautiful musical tapestry of G-d – our Father, in the form of the letters of the Alef-Bet!

This is all very nice and beautiful. But the message if very profound and practical. We have to be attuned to the fact that we (like G-d) create with our speech. Words that we say to a sensitive child or vulnerable person, can either build them up or destroy them. Wow. What power we hold as human beings. And what responsibility.

In fact, it could easily be argued that the very word ‘Jew’ means ‘Mindful one’. The root of the word ‘Yehudi’ means to ‘thank’ or ‘acknowledge’. If you consider what it means to give thanks, it means to become silent, humble and become a receptacle so that you are able to be fully present and ‘take in’ an-other. Whether that other is G-d, a loved one, a beautiful piece of music or a gorgeous sunset.

Another way we emulate G-d is by making space. In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe explains how G-d ‘made space’ for the potential for us to exist by the act of ‘Tzimtzum’ – contracting or condensing His Infinite Light. We need to reciprocate with that and make space for G-d and the Divine, the Sacred in our life. And to make space for others who we are in relationship with as well.

This also means that we have to be able to become vulnerable with connecting to our own Divinity. Experiencing that in a real, felt way. The Kotzker Rebbe said a mind-blowing thing ‘There is nothing as whole as a broken heart’. It allows new light in. That humility.

That is really what life is all about according to Chassidus – making a Home for the Divine within our hearts. Within our bodies. Our families. Within our own microcosmic world.

The Rebbe has an amazing talk in volume 38 of Likutei Sichos, parshas Balak, one of the shortest in the entire set, where he paints a powerful and tangible picture of what redemption and Moshiach is really all about. He explains that it is simply a critical mass of ‘miniature worlds’ that have each achieved a micro-cosmic redemption within their own reality and being. When enough individuals liberate their true Essence – their Soul, that spark of Divinity so that it becomes the guiding force, energy and compass in their life, then that will tip the scales in the macrocosm and the hidden Divine Light will become revealed for all to behold.

Redemption is a state of consciousness. It’s not dependent on what we have or where we are. It IS home. That’s Teshuva. Returning. Coming back to our true Essence. And living from that place.

Perhaps that’s why the first commandment to the first Jew Abraham was ‘Lech Lecha’ – which literally means ‘Go to Yourself!’. In the rest of the verse, G-d tells him to leave all his superimposed identities, who he thinks he is, and find that true Infinite Essence that cannot be limited or boxed.

The late Rabbi David Zeller encapsulated the Essence of Judaism in the most powerful way: ‘Living Judaism is not meant to disconnect you from the world around you. It is meant to prevent you from becoming disconnected from the world within you.’

It’s a matter of choice though at the end of the day. Even if we don’t realize it. We just need to believe it and then live it and reveal it. What teaching could be more empowering, more fortifying and invigorating that that?

Does Judaism have the answers to my personal dilemmas?

MyLife: Chassidus Applied

Watch classes and read articles that demonstrate how the Rebbeim provided us with a comprehensive blueprint of the human psyche.


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