By Elka Melamed, Chicago, Illinois
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
Introduction: The Road Ahead
In this essay we will address the inner unrest that comes with living in a world of constant movement and change. We will examine this unrest as it is expressed in our interactions with our surroundings, leading to reactivity and indecision, and in our perceptions of ourselves, creating internal dissonance. Reactivity means, when something happens, you feel compelled to respond to it. When many things happen, you feel compelled to respond to them all. Stress is the result of reactivity. Indecision results when you feel incapable of choosing between conflicting options, juggling the many tasks you must accomplish, or balancing the various aspects of your life. You know something has to go, but you don’t know what. Internal dissonance is the identity confusion that results from the above two issues. When you feel reactive and indecisive, you wind up behaving in ways that are not in line with who you believe yourself to be. You try to shift your self-concept to match the way in which you live your life and vice versa.
In the first section, we will complain about the problem. In the second, third and fourth sections we will develop a conceptual understanding of the antidote, derived from the Chassidic perspective on purpose as it emphasizes Oneness (referred to, in Chassidic terminology as Achdus Hashem, The Unity of G-d). In the fifth section we will define the characteristic that underlies the ability to apply the above. In the sixth section we will develop a practical process of implementation, and in the conclusion we will discuss strategies for maintaining it.
The entirety of this essay (from the explanation of the problem down to the strategies for maintaining the solution) is based on a beautiful talk of the Rebbe, from Shavuot 5751 (1991)(1). I footnote individual paragraphs and reference the section of the talk they are taken from. As you read this, I encourage you to consider how the concepts conveyed are expressed in your own lived experience. The questions in this essay are not rhetorical. As a bonus, in one of the concluding sections, I provide the latest stress in my own life as an example of how the process can be used by a real person. This is like the photo that comes in a picture frame when you buy it: edited so that the people portrayed look their best. Designed to be discarded and replaced with an image from your own life.
This project has been a labor of love which has changed me for the better. I hope it does the same for you.
Enjoy the ride.
A Road-trip with no Rest Stops
Time does not stop. In the blink of an eye, an infant becomes a toddler, who becomes a child, who becomes a teenager, who becomes an adult. One phase leads to the next, until one day you find yourself doing things you never thought you would do. As years pass on by, you grow up, or grow sideways, until one day you find yourself becoming someone who you never thought you would be. Time does not wait for you. You have so many hopes, goals, dreams, aspirations and obligations; you wonder where it will all fit in. If it will all fit in. You spend your life chasing time, as one moment after the next continues to slip away. What have you accomplished?
The human heart is temperamental. Passion enlivens, until becoming dulled by regularity. Inspiration invigorates and motivates until becoming overwhelmed by the monotony of what the society of disenchanted grown-ups affectionately termed “real life”. You move from grief, to celebration, to boredom, to overload, to incompetence, to initiative, to loneliness, to belonging, in the span of one life. You move from sadness, to happiness, to disinterest, to excitement, to uncertainty, to confidence, in the span of one day. Internal states are fleeting.(2)
The universe is fragmented. The world is a composite of so many vastly different regions. Each place you find yourself in brings with it a new set of societal rules, new people to get on with, new options, opportunities and challenges to adapt to. You zoom in on some aspects of yourself, zoom out on others, and trim off bits along the edges so that you become the person the environment wants you to be. You switch gears as you move from family life, to career, to friends, to self-care. Who are you really?(3)
Life keeps moving, keeps changing, keeps changing you. It is so easy to lose focus, or to forget there is a focus, or to become disillusioned when the focus you thought there was disintegrates. This constant movement and change brings with it so much pressure and tension, conflict and indecision, turmoil and confusion. And in the process, your belief in the solidity of the universe, and your sense of a durable self, vanishes.
Life is a road trip with no rest stops, on a road with intersecting paths that lead in one million diverging directions. This is a road with no clear destination, but countless checkpoints along the way, all of which you must pass before the given deadline. And all the while, ten little kids jump around in the backseat and a cacophony of dissonant noises plays in the background. Is it any wonder you have trouble sleeping at night?
And yet, when the Torah was given, the world was quiet.(4)
Sometimes people accidentally live. It is a sad mistake to make. Think of a time when you happened to become involved in something you felt was pointless. Maybe it was a project you believed was destined to fail, a job you were ill suited for, a meaningless task you were obligated to accomplish, or “someone else’s” responsibility that somehow got dumped on you. What was the quality of the work you did? How did you feel while doing it? How did you respond to challenges and setbacks along the way?
Life can only drag you along for its crazy ride when you yourself do not know where you are going. When you have no clear direction, every misplaced comment makes you angry, every failure makes you uncertain, every challenge pulls you down, because you have nothing to reach up for. Every glitch along the way becomes confounded by the thought that “I should not have to do this”. Every diversion becomes a distraction, because to begin with you had no clear intention. You become careless and reactive, because nothing matters enough to warrant your full consideration, but everything is loud enough to hijack bits of your attention.
Now think of a time when you invested yourself in something that was meaningful to you. Maybe it was a project at a time when you were beginning to see results, a job that utilized your capacities so that you could have an impact, a task you felt was worthwhile, or a responsibility towards someone for whom you care deeply at a time when you were strongly feeling the depth of the relationship. What was the quality of your work then? How did you feel as you did it? How did you respond to challenges and setbacks along the way?
To live intentionally means to have a clear picture of what you want out of life, what you want to give to life, and to know that you can, and will access it. When you have a clear sense of direction, you no longer want, or need, or feel compelled by anything that will lead you away from it. You become proactive, rather than reactive, because you know you have what to accomplish; the world needs you. When life sends challenges your way, as it always will, you continue moving forward, because to stop is not an option; the world needs you. You invest all of you in the tasks you do, because it matters. Every detail matters. You matter. You have a guiding principle with which you prioritize and make decisions: Does this bring me closer or farther from what is meaningful in my life? As the world around you tumbles and crashes, you remain centered and focused, because purpose unifies.(5)
The difference between indecision and decisiveness is not the number of options; it is the clarity of intention. Think of a time when you ran into the grocery store with the intention of buying a specific product, and managed to choose it with no difficulty at all, in spite of a tremendous amount of other products you could choose from. The difference between reactivity and productivity is not the volume of present distractions; it is the certainty of direction. When was the last time you veered off the road to look at every flashing billboard, while on the way to a known destination? I hope never. The degree of inner peace you feel at any given moment is a direct reflection of the degree to which you are in touch with a sense of purpose and believe that you can access it. Tranquility is the byproduct of intentional living.
What would it be like if the entire universe were intentional?
Oneness in the Wilderness
When the Torah was given, the world was quiet because its purpose became apparent. The Torah shows that everything in the universe comes from one place and is headed in one direction. It shows how at the core of all the dissonant elements of this world, there is a unified G-d and guides us as to how to how to find Him. The universe is fragmented; with Torah, we can find the point of unity within it. Life keeps changing; Torah enables us to connect each stage, experience, and encounter with the One G-d and “to make a home for G-d in the lowest places.” A world with Torah is a world with purpose. An interconnected world with a unified core. A world with peace.(6)
The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law begins with the Mishnaic quote “Be bold as a leopard, swift as an eagle, fleet as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”(7) Not the commandments, but the will. Commandments are divided, compartmentalized, and prioritized; will is unified. Commandments are bound by time and external conditions; will is transcendent and unchanging. Commandments create tension-anyone who ever cleaned a house for Pesach knows this–; will creates inner peace. Living the Torah, means connecting to the will of its Writer: To be expressed through, and seen within, every aspect of this fragmented world.
Yes, the Torah has commandments, six hundred and thirteen of them. Commandments which dictate what we eat, what we wear, when we work and even how we tie our shoes. But the starting point is the will: The undivided desire of our Creator to be found in the most mundane aspects of our world, our lives and ourselves. You keep the many Mitzvot “to do the will of your Father in Heaven. You grow, and change, fall and get back up “to do the will of your Father in Heaven”.(8) You jump between one task and another, all the while remembering that in reality they fill a single purpose. And then G-d is found not only in your own life, but in all the diverse details of the world you experience, utilize and act on.(9)
The Torah was given to wandering nomads in a no-man’s land to signify the channel it opened, the capacity it gave humankind, to fuse what is dry and deserted with what is unified and whole. The Torah does not only give us the ability to find G-d within our hearts, but to find him in what we eat, what we wear, when we work and even how we tie our shoes. It gives us the capacity to find G-d within the inspirational and mundane, the invigorating and joyful, and the parched and lonely areas of our lives.(10)
The Torah gives us the key to uncover the point of unity within all the dissonant elements of our external and internal worlds.
When Your Heart Races
“When your heart races, return to One”, writes the author of the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formations) one of the earliest sources on Jewish mysticism11. Simply taken, this means, when you are inspired, ground yourself; when you find yourself flying high, come back to earth. And yet, when taking a closer look at this quote, you will notice, it is not written “When your heart races, return”, but rather “return to One”. One G-d, at the core of all that is. One purpose, to find Him within all that you experience and encounter.
There is a small comfort in the recognition that inspiration and routine are both necessary, as are all the other conflicting states we experience. Inner peace, however, comes from a deep sense of what they are necessary for. If you believe that inspiration can best be sustained within a structured routine, or happiness is most appreciated when it follows sadness, you may be able to tolerate discomfort, but you will always be looking to reach past it. Your life remains fragmented, because you continue to separate the “bad” and the “good”, the means and the goal, the process and the outcome. When you recognize that all experiences come from a place of oneness, and serve to “make a home for G-d in the lowest places”, you stop preferring one state over another, and instead embrace and allow whatever is to be, so that you can find G-d within it.(12) This is the message from the Sefer Yetzira. When life takes you from grief, to celebration, to boredom to overload, to incompetence to initiative, to loneliness to belonging, return to One. Remember that all internal states express a unified soul, born of a unified G-d, to serve a unified purpose: “to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”(13)
As for the many roles you take on while you switch gears as you move from family life, to career, to friends, to self-care, you are all of them and you are none of them. You can be all of them, because you are none of them. You are a unified soul, born of a unified G-d, to serve a unified purpose. Sometimes you find G-d in inspiration or while studying. Sometimes you find Him in caring for and connecting to others, be they family, friends, or strangers. Sometimes you find Him in paperwork or career requirements. Sometimes in the recreation or reflection you use to regenerate and recharge yourself.
You “return to One”, by letting go of your sense of a separate Self and becoming an extension of something bigger than you: G-d.
If you had no Self
Bittul is one of the most frequently used terms in Chassidus and there is no word in the English language that quite captures its meaning. It is often loosely translated as “nullification”, which implies some form of self-negation, but paradoxically, it is also at the core of any lasting selfacceptance. Bittul means surrendering your personal desires and inclinations for the good of another. It means forgetting, for a moment, what you think you know, and allowing yourself to learn something new. It means letting go of preconceived notions, so that you can really listen. It means putting yourself aside so there is space for someone else. And in doing so, you come to know G-d. Because G-d is not a level you build up to, a concept you come to understand, an accomplishment you achieve, or a product you buy. He is not found with those who are strong, or smart, or rich, or spiritual enough for Him, because no-one is or will ever be. He is found with those who make space for him.(14)
All inner unrest comes from a place of self-absorption and a sense of personal insecurity. You feel overwhelmed by the need to juggle, balance, and accomplish when you feel a need to prove yourself, validate your existence, or fill an internal void. You feel compelled to react to insult, because if you don’t defend yourself, it might become true, or someone might believe it is true of you. You feel driven to build a successful career, because you feel unworthy without it. You feel obligated towards martyrdom because your own integrity depends on it. You feel uplifted by success and disheartened by failure because both reflect on your personal abilities. You feel coerced into responding to every want your environment uncovers, every obligation it presents and every threat it poses, because your life, your Self, depends on it. But what if you had no Self?
If you had no self, you could never become broken; your flawed humanity could never inhibit you; personal limitations could not hold you back; failure could not define you; fear could never compel you. When you focus your energy on the intent “to do the will of your Father in Heaven,” no task is beneath or beyond you, and so you no longer operate on resentment or fear. You can teach a child, clean a room, fill out paperwork, educate an audience, travel the world, or manage a corporation if that’s what is needed of you, all with the same tranquility and clarity of intent. You cannot be driven because you are the driver. You transform the world rather than being held captive by it. You are at peace because you belong to something bigger than you and every moment of your life is intentional.
Cosmic Peace in a Nutshell: A Summary of the Process
Let go of who you think you are, what you feel you need, and what you believe you know. Ask, instead, “What am I needed for?”
Center the many aspects of your life around a unified intent. Remember that every need you fill, every task you accomplish, fills a single purpose. And every challenge or opportunity, strength or vulnerability, you are given is a part of the unique role you play in making “a home for G-d in the lowest places”.
Invest your personal sense of purpose and oneness in a tangible act, in a way of life. Respond, progress, and accomplish the many tasks your daily life demands with the wholeheartedness, presence, and serenity that accompany the conviction that all actualize a unified intent.
I am writing this essay while at the beginning of a new job as a preschool teacher. Though I love working with children, this had not been my planned trajectory for the year. I had recently completed my undergraduate studies with a major in psychology, and while applying to graduate programs, I had planned to build connections in the academic world and get a foot into mental health as well as some research experience. A few months into the year, a preschool teacher I know came up with plans to move to Israel. Someone was desperately needed to fill the position. My schedule had left mornings free, the children knew me, and there were no other someones to be found. I was hesitant to take on the job for fear of losing sight of, and space for, my long term goals. It was a job I loved and was needed for, but still, I was afraid, and therefore reluctant. The concepts discussed in this essay are a large part of what opened me up to taking the position with a full heart (rather than a guilty conscience alone). Let’s take a look how:
Let go. I let go of the need to know and to control how and when I get the experience I am looking for. I allow G-d to revise my grand plans, and trust that when I give what is needed I’ll get to where I need to be. (I also cancel my afternoon job and continue networking, so as to open space and a channel for opportunity).
Center. I remind myself that I am studying psychology because I love people, and I am teaching preschool because I love people. These are not two separate and conflicting areas of my life. Both serve to access and develop what is whole and real and G-dly in people and in this world.
Invest. I put my time and energy into creating a warm classroom environment, connecting to and learning from these beautiful, energetic, sincere souls to whom I have been given the opportunity to teach Torah and love and respect for one another. They then go on to spread illuminating light and G-dly energy to the world.
Now bring to mind your own sample stress and take a stab at the process. Begin by noticing any fears or insecurities that contribute to feelings of reactivity, and chose to let them go. Then ask yourself “what makes this situation worthwhile? How can I find G-d here too?”. Finally, identify a tangible act that the situation requires and peacefully do it. In a universe where a single thread ties all parts together, each moment of serenity you tap into, each meaningful act you accomplish ripples outward, brings us nearer to the “day that will be wholly Shabbat and tranquility”.(15) We are coming so close.
Conclusion: The Road Ahead
If you feel inspired after reading this, don’t expect it to last longer than a week; consider yourself lucky, if it lasts longer than an hour. But plan to maintain it for a lifetime. Don’t expect yourself to remain centered every moment of your life, but know that you can re-center at any moment. Here is how:
Learn Torah, specifically its deeper elements. A world with Torah is a world with purpose. An interconnected world with a unified core. Chassidus helps you access this. But don’t just learn, learn.
Designate a time for weekly or daily Torah study. There is a tremendous power in consistent study. What you learn becomes you. What you learn regularly becomes your mental screensaver– the thoughts that automatically run through your mind when nothing else is filling the space. Learning Torah on a regular basis gives you the capacity to tap into a sense of the unity of G-d at the times when you most need it.(16)
Find the elements of Torah that resonate with you and expand and personalize them. Ask yourself questions: What does this mean? What does it look like? Are there any inconsistencies that must be resolved? What are some tangible instances of how the principles laid out are expressed? And then fill in the gaps. I am a psychology student and an artist, so for me this means translating Torah into human experience and the arts. There is something that you uniquely can add to Torah. Find it.(17)
Share the Torah thoughts and insights you have with friends. Post them to social media. Write an essay for an essay contest. The Torah belongs to you. When you innovate within, and then share it, your learning becomes active, engaging and meaningful. And then the Torah grips you and fills your mind, not only while you are learning, but more importantly, while you are living.(18)
Find the concepts you learn, use the tools you gain, in your daily life. To some degree this happens naturally when you take the above-mentioned steps. Additionally, it can be helpful to have a phrase or short exercise you can use to re-center in moments of stress. Initially after learning this Chassidic teaching, I would repeat the quote “to do the will of your Father in Heaven” at times when I was feeling conflicted. While writing this essay, I have begun using the Let go, Center, Invest process described in the preceding section. Find what resonates with you and reconnect to it as often as you can.
Enjoy the ride.
1 Sefer Hasichos 5751, volume
2, Parshat Bamidbar, pages 550-562 2 Ibid, section 5
3 Ibid, section 3, paragraphs 1 and 2
4 Talmud Avodah Zara 3a
5 Sefer Hasichos Ibid, paragraphs 5 and 6
6 Ibid, paragraphs 7 & 8
7 Mishna Avos 5:20. Translation is taken from chabad.org
8 Yes, G-d is found in the choices we make. For more on this, see Likkutei Sichos, Volume 5, Parshat Lech Lecha
9 Sefer Hasichos Ibid, section 4
10 Ibid, section 10, paragraphs 1 & 2
11 As quoted in Sefer Hasichos Ibid, section 5
12 The concept that G-d can be found within the process, not merely in the end goal, is developed in depth in Sefer Hasichos, 5751, volume 2, Parshat Pinchas, pages 695-708
13 Sefer Hasichos, Bamidbar Ibid., Section 5
14 Ibid, section 6
15 Tamid, 7:4
16 Ibid, section 11
17 Ibid, section 12