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Me? Religious?

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The Meaningful Life Center propose a way of life enlightened by the Torah and illuminated and vitalized by Chassidic teaching. Perhaps some of you have wondered: What would it be like to actually live this way? What happens when these teachings are accepted as a guide to daily living?

In this column, we bring you a glimpse into one such life. Jay Litvin is a 56-year-old husband, father, writer, filmmaker, public relations consultant and chassid. His articles are based not on any specific talk or essay of the Rebbe’s, but on his personal experience of the endeavor to incorporate the Rebbe’s vision into his life:

Frankly I loathe being called a “religious” person. It sounds so boring.

I’m reminded of a person who once told me how much he envied me. “Life for you is so simple,” he said. “Your religion tells you what to do and what not to do, and gives you all the answers.”

Boy, I wish.

But, in truth, this is what the word “religion” conjures up: something kind of old and staid, perhaps even a bit crusty. Something calm and peaceful, barely alive and never in motion.

And so I reject the title of “religious person.” I’m just a guy who looks like a religious person.

So then, what am I?

Well, in truth, life feels more to me like a battleground than a prayer service, and my inner reality is more that of a warrior than a pious person.

So, if I have to label myself anything (which I vigorously avoid doing), I would have to call myself a “spiritual warrior.” And here’s what that means for me.

A warrior is one who enters the battlefield with a healthy dose of fear and a larger dose of love. He fights for a principle or for his country or for his king, and his love for these outweighs the fear he feels for his own safety. He requires courage and skill, for he risks his very life.

A warrior loves the battlefield; it is here that he is most alive. He must at all times act with his full awareness and ability; even the slightest lapse will cause his downfall.

The battlefield brings forth from the warrior capabilities and potentials that he didn’t even know existed within himself. And so, as he fights, he is in a constant state of self-discovery.

Frankly I loathe being called a “religious” person. It sounds so boring
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The true warrior longs for the battlefield, for the rest of life seems, in comparison, like a place where he is able to actualize only a small part of who he is. So he craves the challenge and the encounter. He loves living on the edge. It is here that he is the most of who he is, and where he discovers that he is, in fact, more than who he thinks he is.

Living as a Jew and a chassid is this experience. It is an encounter with the Almighty and with myself. It is the place of self-discovery and challenge. It requires the bravery of facing who I am and who I am not. It takes a willingness to see the potential of who I can be and face the smallness of who I have allowed myself to be.

When I am living Jewishly, I am living at the edge. I am in a no-man’s land where each encounter, each moment, presents an opportunity to learn, to act, to refine and to transform. Sometimes, like King Arthur, I am battling dragons within and without; sometimes I am challenged by beasts that threaten to devour me with their anger and fear; sometimes I am fighting for my own sanity, attempting to reconcile the tactual world with a world which can neither be seen, heard or touched.

As a spiritual warrior—when I am blessed to be living smack in the middle of the battlefield—I am fully alive, wrestling at the edge of who I am. It matters not whether I am in prayer, giving my child a bath, or sitting at my computer. The battlefield includes my personal relationships, my inner desires, my overdrawn bank account, and my constant lack of sleep. It embraces my marriage and employment. My frustration, patience, envy, lust and greed. It is a state of mind, a willingness to find G-d in all places and to meet Him fully, allowing Him to penetrate into the deepest recesses of who I am and to dispel all the images of who I think I am.

Each time, and there are many such times, that I confront the imperative of what I must do with the reluctance of what I want to do; each time that I must transform thoughts and attitudes formed through years of life and conditioning into holy thoughts and holy attitudes, I am on the battlefield. Whether it’s giving charity from the few pennies left in the coffer, or taking on an additional responsibility, or offering to help a friend or not even a friend when I can barely stay awake, I am on the battlefield. When tragedy strikes my family, G-d forbid, and I must discover a way to be both genuine with my grief and yet remain cognizant of the good I know that G-d gives to the world, I am being a spiritual warrior.

As a spiritual warrior I discover my faith when I am at the limits of my faith. I find my love of G-d when I am angry with G-d. I find my trust in the Protector of the world when I am at my most frightened. And I find my obedience to the Almighty when I feel the most rebellious.

I am a spiritual warrior when I fully feel my despair, and find the hope to go on. When I feel betrayed, yet discover my trust. When I reach higher than I should, then fail and fall, only to discover that I have landed at a station higher than the one from which I reached.

On this battlefield called Yiddishkeit, I am stretched to the limit only to find that my limit is nowhere near what I thought it was. I am alive and growing, moving, in process. Scared and exhilarated. Craving victory and having not the slightest idea of what it means.

To me, all the rest, as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi says in his Tanya, is conceit. To be despondent over the fact that I am constantly in the midst of a struggle is to pretend that I am something more than who I really am. It is to pretend that I am a tzaddik, one of the righteous few who have vanquished the negative within themselves, when in fact I can only aspire, at my best moments, to the level of beinoni, the spiritual warrior in the battlefield of life.

The Tanya tells us to rejoice when we are challenged within or without because this is our task: to enter the battlefield. We are, it seems to me, like soldiers who have trained endlessly for battle, and shout in joy when the moment finally arrives to test their abilities and find the real stuff of which they are made.

And this is the spiritual warrior’s challenge: to find the stuff of which he is made, whether it is to his liking or not, and bring himself fully into the struggle with himself and his encounter with G-d.

I find this battle terrifying, because I have no idea where it will lead. It forces me to open myself to G-d and allow Him into the innermost, most intimate confines of myself. It forces me to confront the plaguing question: if I truly let G-d in, what will He do to me once He is there? Who will I be? What will the world have become? And what is my place and purpose within it?

Religious? Me? Hardly. A Torah life is no place for a religious person. Religion is much too safe for such a journey into the unknown, into a meeting place with G-d. Only a warrior can embrace such a task. Only a chassid of the Rebbe can hope to possess such courage.

By Jay Litvin

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