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I Am My Own Greatest Enemy: Shedding Chassidic Light on Destructive Behaviors

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Countess Rivka Elkaim, Bal Harbour, Florida
MyLife Essay Contest 2018 

There have been countless stories of death and destruction recently—too many. The pain is real, and it seems as if unfortunately these horror stories are becoming more prevalent each day. This essay is not meant to be a scientific paper analyzing destructive behaviors, but will attempt to give advice based on the teachings of Chassidus in how we can come to terms with this plague, and b’ezras Hashem (G-d willing) reduce it until the day very soon when all sorrow and negativity will cease with the revelation of Moshiach.

Destructive Behaviors

We have all heard and seen numerous young people end their lives tragically, either in a physical manner, most often by drug overdose; in a spiritual way, by becoming secular or even entirely non-observant; in an emotional manner, by overdrinking, using drugs, etc.; or intellectually, by dropping out of Yeshivah or school and either doing nothing constructive or trying to make ends meet by engaging in some form of commerce, sometimes even selling illegal merchandise. Why this? Why in our community? Why so many? What could we do to stop this?

Root Causes

We live in a generation of extreme egotism and self-worship. John Stuart Mill’s philosophy of Utilitarianism, in which happiness and pleasure are the only things worth striving for—although widely criticized when it was first developed—is now the reigning philosophy of the Western world most Jews live in. Although these ideas led to the Hippie Era in the 1960s and 1970s, which eventually passed as people woke up to its deep lack of meaningfulness, the religious Jewish community of those times were for the vast majority immune to the war of self-destruction raging in the secular world. However, in our times as the non-Jews have become more accepting of Jews and more Jews live in countries in which they not only speak the language fluently, but are also aware of the prevalent culture and social norms, it is much easier for them to unfortunately adopt similar views and consequently take part in behaviors that are antithetical to basic Jewish values. How could we compare a scrawny Jew, barred from lucrative professions, who was always at risk of being evicted or even killed by throbs of blood-thirsty peasants and Cossacks, who would not dare enter a tavern to today’s Jews, for whom entering a casino, nightclub, bar, or movie theater entails zero danger. Sadly, our biggest blessing of being able to practice Yiddishkeit (Judaism) in freedom from persecution has led to the biggest threat to that same Yiddishkeit.

The Id against the Yid

Based on Sigmund Freud’s id, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, and the theories of other psychiatrists and philosophers, most Western secular culture has come to portray people as hedonistic creatures in search of pleasure and happiness. From what we are taught in the Torah, this cannot be further from the truth. As the light of Chassidus reaches the furthest corners of the world, even secular non-Jews now come to recognize that people find more meaning, fulfillment, and consequently happiness when they focus on doing something for another instead of focusing solely on themselves and their desires. Based on this, recommending a depressed patient to get involved in volunteering has become a crucial component in the treatment and management of depression.

The Dangers of Abuse

Drug overdose is the #1 cause of accidental deaths in people under the age of 50 (Appendix I). Drug deaths are at an all-time high (Appendix II), and the cost of engaging in destructive behaviors is staggering, both in human life and financial figures (Appendix III). Even marijuana, which is now legal in many places, is very dangerous (Appendix IV). In any case, legal does not equate with danger-free, as the dangers of tobacco, a legal substance, has been proven countless times. Is this really where we want to go, G-d forbid?!…

A Culture of Narcissism

Without even realizing what was coming, our community has allowed the insidious infiltration on secular Western culture into our midst. Unfortunately, what in the Old World used to be the dream of every little boy, to become well-versed in the Talmud and go to Yeshivah, but sadly was most often not so due to poverty, lack of melamdim (Torah teachers), persecution, etc., slowly becomes relegated to the domain of the elite few who not only have the ability to learn but also the will and interest to do so. All of the beautiful accomplishments of the last century in the New World that provided every child with a Talmud education regardless of the ability of his or her parents to pay through tuition assistance and new teaching methods and tools for those less bright, are going to waste. Now, too many children who cannot or do not learn, instead of becoming water-carriers, tailors, or doing other menial jobs as in the Old World, or succeeding despite financial or intellectual challenges as in the last century in the New World, drop out of school, lower their Frumkeit (religiosity), and self-destruct through drunkenness, drug abuse, self-abuse, and sometimes even in the abuse of others, just because they feel like it, reject all authority, and think that they will fit in with the cool crowd by doing so. Is that what centuries of progress has brought us to? What does Chassidus say about this?

Chassidus on Human Worth

Man and woman were created in G-d’s Image1. The soul that Hashem (G-d) blows into each Jew is a chelek Elokah mimaal mamosh2 (a literal part of G-d above). Furthermore, Hashem chose the Jewish body, with the ultimate, deepest, truest choice, as Jewish and non-Jewish bodies are similar. The Alter Rebbe used to say that we do not have any idea how precious to Hashem is a Jewish body3.

In the Sicha of Parshas Teruma 5752, the Rebbe explains how by mentioning gold before silver and copper, although the Yidden (Jews) had less of it than they had silver or copper, Hashem was intimating the every Yid (Jew) was as precious as gold to Him. It is a well-known Chassidic metaphor that every Yid is more precious to Hashem than an only child born to his or her parents in their old age.

As the Rebbe explains in his Maamar Vayedaber Elokim el Moshe 5712, human blunders are part of the Divine intent in creation. They are only there in order to pave the way to a place unreachable if not for them. The light that Teshuva releases is one that even a Tzadik cannot bring into the world. This does not mean that we should G-d forbid go on wrong paths and think that we will do Teshuva later, as that is against G-d’s Will, and even a moment of separation from Hashem is the greatest pain that a neshama could have4. Nevertheless, those mistakes we have already made can be turned into beacons of the most intense Divine Light for ourselves and the world5.

Hashem’s Expectation of Us

The basics of religious behavior are required of every Jew, regardless of his or her age and present level of refinement. This can be learnt by the ten-cubit-high planks forming the walls of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The ten cubits allude to the ten powers of the soul—the three facets of the intellect and the seven emotions—while the Mishkan’s coverings symbolize the soul’s enveloping powers: delight and will. The bases, however, did not refer to any elevated spiritual power, just simply to kabbolas ol (lit. acceptation of the Divine yoke, i.e. self-discipline in the service of G-d), a Jew’s self-discipline in learning Torah and doing mitzvos for Hashem’s sake, even when he or she does not feel like that is what he or she would like to do at that particular moment. Nevertheless, this corresponds to the bases of the Mishkan, the part that ensures the ability for the whole structure to stand upright! This is also why everyone contributed what they wished according to their means and desires to the other components of the Mishkan, as no two people are alike in their delight, will, as well as intellectual and emotional relationship with Hashem. However, for the bases, everyone had the obligation to give the same amount, because the fulfillment of Torah and mitzvos through kabbolas ol is expected of every single Jew.6

Reframing Guide

As the lack of self-love and purpose is often stated as one of the major causes of resorting to destructive behaviors, the short guide below is meant as ten examples of ways in which to reframe negative thoughts into positive ones based upon the teachings of Chassidus:

I hate myself.

Hashem loves me, so how can I hate what Hashem loves?!

I am worthless.

Hashem put me here for a purpose only I can achieve, so I am important and cannot let Him down.

I feel like taking X substance right now.

What I feel like doing may not be the best for me. I need to think before I act, and learn to use my mind to control my heart in order to choose what is truly best for me.

I don’t feel like doing X mitzvah at the moment.

When the Torah requires mitzvos done at specific times or in specific ways, there must be a reason, even if the reason is simply that it’s Hashem’s Will. I’ll try to learn them, but even if I don’t understand them, I won’t be so arrogant as to decide not to do them. On the contrary, I’ll follow in the steps of my ancestors at Har Sinai who said, “Naaseh veNishma, we will do and then we will seek to understand.” Hopefully one day with Hashem’s help I will understand.

I don’t care what my parents or teachers want me to do.

Hashem gave my parents the sacred duty to bring me up and chose them specifically because they are the right people to bring out my strengths and nurture them, as well as correct my deficiencies. Hashem also put my teachers in my path because they are the right people to guide me. Therefore, as all of them wish to steer me in a certain way, even if I don’t feel like it, I will listen because I know that it is for my good. The same way my parents who love me protected me from physical danger such as running into oncoming traffic or cutting myself with a knife when I was little even if I didn’t understand, they are now preventing me from hurting myself spiritually. I hope that just as I now understand physical danger which I didn’t as a toddler, one day I will understand why it was good for me to stay away from spiritual danger now.

I am my own person and want to do as I please.

I do not belong to myself, but to Hashem. He created me and knows what is best for me. Just as I wouldn’t use a gadget in a way that it was not intended for and risk damaging it, when it comes to the most incredible machine ever created which is my body, I’ll follow the directions from its Creator. In addition, Hashem’s life-force is what makes me exist at every instant7; how could I possibly use my life in any other way than to serve my Creator, c”v (G-d forbid)8?

Using X dulls my pain and makes me feel good.

Instead of doing something that may bring me short-term gratification but that I know damages me long-term and anyway only relieves the symptoms of my pain and not its causes, I will seek guidance from my parents, teachers, mashpia (spiritual counselor), rov, and seek professional help if necessary, in order to remedy the causes of my pain and anything else that prevents me from being happy, fulfilled, and growing in Torah and mitzvos as I am meant to be. When I have an illness of the body, G-d forbid, I seek a doctor’s help, and when I have an illness of the soul, I need to seek the guidance of a rov or mashpia, because it would be just as dangerous for me and even more so to try to cure myself of a spiritual illness than a physical one.

Nobody loves me.

Hashem loves me and that’s all I need. In addition, I’m sure many other people love me such as my parents, family, friends, etc., even though my current state of mind makes me oblivious to these facts. In addition, Hashem is always with me and I have nothing to fear except for Him.9

Yiddishkeit is ritualistic.

The ritualistic aspects of Yiddishkeit are only the tip of the iceberg, yet they are Hashem’s Will and need to be followed even if I don’t understand them yet. Underneath are abundant beautiful reasons. Even deeper is no reason that we can understand because they are from Hashem Who is Infinite, and consequently His Will is impossible for us finite humans to understand.

The Rebbe is not here anyway.

The Rebbe is more physically present than ever before. On the contrary, now that his holy Neshama is no longer limited by a physical body, he can be present wherever I am exactly when I need him. I will learn Igeres HaKodesh Chapter 27 in order to help me understand this, as well as study his teachings in his Sichos, Maamarim, and Igros, etc. which is the way to communicate with him10. I will also strive to take to heart that every time I write to him or ask him something, he will find a way to answer me even if he doesn’t write back physically. Anyway, most of what my friends call being Chassidish is in fact just basic halacha (Jewish law), so I will also learn halachah so that I can understand what Hashem expects of me, which is something the Rebbe requested anyway for everyone to learn. Also, as a chossid I will try my best to do all mitzvos b’hiddur (lit. beautifully, i.e. beyond minimum requirements), and not c”v just in the most minimally acceptable manner.

Conclusion

Although it is the author’s sincere hope that many people will benefit from reading this essay, if even only one person can be saved from the claws of this epidemic of self-destruction, this essay will have accomplished its purpose, as the Torah teaches that each person is a world and whoever saves a Jewish life, it is considered as if he or she saved an entire world.11 No matter how things appear to us, we always have to remember that each and every one of us has been endowed with all of the tools that we need in order to successfully accomplish the Divine mission with which we have been entrusted in this world. Therefore, we must rise to the occasion and approach our mission with the joy and enthusiasm it deserves because of the One who chose it for us and accompanies us on it every step of the way. Nothing is too hard or infeasible when Hashem is with us.12

May each one of us find the strength and fortitude to forge ahead in our personal battles, emerging victorious and thereby revealing a level of G-dliness that could not have been revealed any other way, and may this spur about the revelation of Moshiach when there will be no more pain and all goodness with exist in abundance.13


Sources

  1. Bereishis, Chapter 1, verses 26 and 27
  2. Tanya, Chapter 2
  3. Hayom Yom, Ellul 29
  4. Tanya, Chapter 24
  5. Likutei Sichos, vol. V, p.57
  6. Likutei Sichos, vol. 1, p.162
  7. HaYom Yom, Sivan 29
  8. Maamar Lo Sisyeh Meshakeila 5712
  9. The Baal Shem Tov’s father to him.
  10. HaYom Yom, Sivan 24
  11. Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5, Talmud Yerushalmi 4:9, Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 37a
  12. Tehillim, Chapter 91, verse 15
  13. Rambam’s Mishne Torah, Hilchos Melachim, Chapter XI, Halacha
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Anonymous

Thank You
Rabbi Jacobson-you are literally a life-saver in Lubavitch today, a guiding light to our children’s generation, and our family watches every week.

Countess Elkaim-thank you for all the mentorship throughout the years. How you brought up your amazing daughter and the beautiful and erudite davening essay she wrote two weeks ago are a testament to the veracity of Chassidic values and an inspiration to all other parents.