By Rochel Schwartz
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
Dan sat in his psychologist’s office.
The psychologist leaned over his desk, making strong eye contact with Dan. He lowered his voice “Every one of our actions are meaningful. Although sometimes buried deep inside, every action has some sort of inner intention. Every addiction stems from somewhere. Dan, imagine yourself awake late at night after a long day. Imagine that there is no one around, just you, in a quiet house. Imagine yourself reaching for a cigarette. What do you feel in that moment?”
Dan sighed deeply: “I don’t know. I just don’t know. It’s a feeling I can’t quite put my finger on… It’s a feeling of… emptiness.”
This essay seeks to discuss the revolutionary approach that Chassidus takes on addiction. Throughout the course of this essay, we will touch upon what “emptiness” truly means, why people turn to pleasure to fill an emptiness or void inside of themselves, and the Chassidic approach to overcoming addiction.
How is “emptiness” defined? And what does it mean to feel “whole?” There is a chronic global issue of people walking around feeling “empty,” as if they have a deep void inside of them waiting to be filled with anything that will make it go away. Emptiness is a state of being that is extremely uncomfortable. Thus, people are turning to all sorts of addictive substances, recognition, and fame as a result of this feeling.1 The ultimate disastrous consequence of prolonged feeling of emptiness is suicide. A person is actually willing to commit an act of ultimate self-destruction because of his feeling of emptiness.
What is happening here? What is so terrible about feeling empty? In truth, what is “so terrible” about anything is the feeling that our perception of reality isn’t in line with reality itself. The phenomenon of death is “terrible” because in a perfect world, people are supposed to live forever. Thus, “death” is a reality that is not in line with how things should be and innately are.
People can’t stand feeling empty because people are essentially not empty. In Chapter Two of the book of Tanya, written by the founder of the Chabad Movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalmen of Liadi, 2 it is explained that every living being was created with the life force of G-d Himself. G-d is the creator of the concept of emptiness and consequently wholeness. He is the unchanging all-inclusive entity of everything that exists in this world. 3 , Thus, we are innately very whole. And yet we don’t feel whole, why? Because G-d created us to be out of touch with this reality. He created us to have animalistic souls which counteract that inner wholeness, obscuring it partially, if not completely, on a constant basis. Our animal soul is rooted in klipa, which is the force that exists in this world which is empty and false, devoid of G-d’s innermost life force. 4 Our animal soul causes us to feel empty through causing us to become in tune with our physical bodily selves, and getting us to feel all sorts of depressing thoughts. 5
So perhaps the best way to define “wholeness” according to Chassidus is the phenomenon of being in tune with your inner wholeness, your G-dly soul. “Emptiness,” on the other hand could be defined as the phenomenon of being in tune solely with your animal soul and physical self, the pleasure seeking, recognition wanting self.
Why Turning to Pleasure is Sub-Rational—the Self Destructive Agenda of the Evil Inclination
The above explains why people feel the way they feel but it doesn’t explain why people do the things they do because of that feeling. It doesn’t explain why a person who feels empty, turns to pleasure to fill that emptiness. The above phenomenon, when examined closely actually makes very little sense. Let’s assume that a person’s ultimate prerogative is to feel whole, complete, happy, and truly, inwardly confident– so why does he turn to pleasure? Pleasure is just another form of emptiness. It makes us feel good but it prevents us from progressing forward, and is many times destructive towards leading a healthy lifestyle. Let’s take the example of eating: a person who overeats in an abundant manner, will likely develop a hue of all kinds of physical health issues. Many times, being chronically overweight results in negative self-esteem and even depression. 6 People eat because it gives them temporary pleasure. This same principle, in truth, can be applied to any type of pleasure. Pleasure when indulged is disastrous. Pleasure when indulged, actually destroys us. Could there be anything more empty then something that destroys and prevents healthy, happy, and meaningful living? Could there be anything more false, more evil, more catastrophic?
We turn to pleasure, to emptiness when we feel empty. Is there anything more illogical? Why do we do this? We do this, because we have three internal voices inside of us. The first voice, is called the G-dly soul. The G-dly soul is responsible for us wanting G-d; wanting to connect to Him, wanting to pray to Him, wanting to immerse oneself in His Holy Wisdom, and wanting to fulfill His will. 7 The second voice inside of us, called the animal soul, is responsible for wanting to survive and is consumed with all of the necessary activities that surviving entails such as eating and sleeping. 8 Then there is a third voice. This voice wants neither for us connect to G-d, nor to for us to be healthy, happy individuals. This voice, called called the Evil Inclination, 9 wants us to not be happy, not be healthy, and not be able to fulfill our missions on this earth. He is the epitome of all the evil that G-d created in this world, mirrored and manifested inside of us. His job is to get us to self-destruct and he does it by accessing a very soft spot in ourselves, man’s disposition to indulging in pleasure. It is this voice that tells us: “You are feeling empty right now? Eating only enough to survive and be satisfied is boring, go take that second piece of cake. You’re feeling anxious? Smoking cigarettes will make you feel better, I promise. You’re so tired and stressed right now. Take a drink.” And in this manner, he gets us to fall, lower and lower until we are helplessly in the throes of addiction, depression, and inner turmoil.
This voice is evil, it is cruel, and most importantly, it is profoundly illogical. And it is illogical because he knows, just as much as you, that there is no way that something as empty as pleasure could ever make you feel whole, happy, or satisfied.
In the famous Chassidic Discourse, Basi L’gani, said by the Previous Rebbe of Lubavitch, printed in 5710, it explains that the “word used in the Torah for “acacia” is Shita, the root of which implies deviation in either direction, higher or lower, from a middle path. The same root also implies foolishness, for foolishness (Shtus) is a deviation from the middle path of knowledge and wisdom. There is a foolishness that stems from the unholy side of the universe…In this vein our Sages comment on the above-mentioned wife who “turns aside” (Tisteh): “No human commits a sin unless a spirit of folly (Shtus) enters him.” This spirit of folly derives from the kelipah, from the unholy side of creation, and it covers over the truth. It is advisedly called a spirit of foolishness, just as the Evil Inclination is called “an old and foolish king.” This unholy spirit of folly veils the revelation of Divine light; it obscures the truth and the vitality of G-dliness. For G-dliness is both truth and life, as in the verse, “HaShem is the true G-d, the living G-d.” For this reason, the evil spirit of folly is called [by the Kabbalists] kelipah, for like a peel or shell that covers the fruit within, it obscures and conceals the revelation of Divine light. 10
The method that the Evil Inclination uses for getting a person to sin basically goes as follows: Step one: get him to become removed from his innate wholeness and connection to truth and holiness by getting him to become in touch primarily with him, his physical bodily pleasure seeking self. Step two: convince him of something completely untrue and illogical— that pleasure will actually be good for him, causing him to sin, and thereby destroying his connection to that wholeness, truth, and holiness. The same Evil Inclination uses almost the same exact method to get a person to self-destruct. Step one: get him to become removed from his innate wholeness and connection to truth and holiness by getting him to become in touch primarily with him, his physical bodily pleasure seeking self. Step two: cause him to feel this feeling of deep emptiness. Step three: convince him of something completely untrue and illogical—that pleasure will actually be better for him, getting him to indulge in pleasure and thereby destroying his connection to that innate wholeness, contentment, health, and joy.
Any logical person knows that after they eat a whole cake after feeling empty, stressed, or anxious, they don’t feel one bit more whole.
Any logical person knows that after smoking their fifth pack of cigarettes that day, the emptiness they feel inside won’t be one bit diminished and will very likely be deepened. Any logical person knows that indulging in inappropriate online content won’t make him feel one bit more happy, secure, or confident. And yet we turn to pleasure time and again, knowing that it is illogical, knowing that it won’t get us anywhere, knowing that it is here to destroy us and make us feel more empty. We naturally turn to destruction itself to try to build a sturdy edifice after our previous one has been destroyed.
This begs the question: why did G-d create us like this? Why did He create a part ourselves that is naturally wired be intensely self-focused, destructive, and illogical? The basic answer is that the reason that G-d created any evil is to cause us to realize that it is evil, and rise above it. If there was no evil in this world, we would be instantly attracted to truth and holiness without thinking twice. We would have no “pull” in any other direction then good. This phenomenon is also known as “free choice.” In simple terms, G-d gives us addiction so that we can heal from it and come out as stronger, smarter, and more sensitive people, people who are sensitive to the piece of G-d inside of us, and inside of others. But how?
The Solution—Getting Intune with Our Super-Rational Selves
The illogical entity inside of us is here to stay. How do we counteract it? How can we tap into our untouched potential as not merely human beings, as G-dly beings? How do we find our inner true beautiful value and wholeness without getting distracted by the illogical self-destructive part of ourselves? What is the antidote to ignoring this irrational voice?
The general answer: by becoming sensitive to our super rational voice, our G-dly voice. The voice that is perfect and pure and holy and whole. The voice that would never allow us to self-destruct because our purpose, and what we are meant to do on this earth is too precious. Most importantly, it is this voice that is completely above and beyond the bounds of nature and logic.
The Previous Rebbe continues to explain in the fifth chapter of Basi Legani 11: In order to relate to G-d’s Essence one must make a self-effacing commitment that transcends the bounds of reason. Hence this level of spiritual attainment is also called folly…For it thus embodied the principle that conduct which is folly — in the sense that it is lower than reason — ought to be transformed into conduct which is folly in the sense that it transcends reason. G-d dwells “within each individual” through his divine service of personal refinement which transforms darkness into light, and through his efforts at turning the sub-rational elements of the world into the super-rational.”
Is there a super-rational approach that we can take toward healing from addiction? Although from a psychological perspective one may have a biological disposition to a certain addiction, every addiction starts with some sort of exposure to the addictive substance. In addition, every addiction begins with the act of saying “yes” one too many times to the addictive substance. Once a person is addicted, it is not simple to say “no.” It is very possible that a person’s brain has become wired to become dependent on the substance, causing him to be unable to turn it down, that is without extensive therapy and perhaps the use of medication. However, that first “no,” is completely in our control. If saying “yes” to pleasure is sub-rational, then saying “no” to pleasure must be super-rational. The more we exercise our super-rational abilities to say “no” to pleasure indulgence throughout our daily lives, the less likely we’ll be to fall.
Once a person is G-d Forbid already addicted, the first step towards recovery from addiction is by knowing that you—mind, heart, and soul—however powerful, are not in control. The act of saying “I am not in control” means admitting: I am not the smartest person that exists on this earth, I am not the strongest person that exists on this earth. Everything I have, including my intellectual, rational capacities, cannot get me out of this. There is a superrational, all knowing, ultimately true and holy power that is controlling all of creation including my own destiny. Therefore, I am unable to get out of this without G-d, without handing myself over this super-rational being. I need the ultimate of wholeness, truth, and holiness to be manifested in myself and my life and therefore, I have actively decided to become in tune with G-d and the piece of G-d inside of me. The first three steps in the “12 Step Program” of Alchaholics Anonymous 12 outlines exactly this idea: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable…Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity…Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
Emptiness and the sub-rational, self-destructive process that many times comes along with it, can only be healed through turning over our super-rational selves towards a superrational power, also known as G-d. Just as irrational as it is to be irrational, is it irrational to be super-rational. Irrational though in this case, is positive. It is super rational. It is indeed irrational that an addict could have such an inner fountain of strength, and depth of character to turn to G-d and say “G-d, I’m giving this back to you.” It is irrational that there are remarkable individuals living on this earth who are willing to look themselves in the mirror and say “I failed. I am imperfect, I was created imperfect, with self-destructive illogical tendencies. I need you G-d.”
The more we exercise our super-rational selves, the more in touch, the more sensitive we become to our G-dly souls. Getting in touch with our G-dly souls is what causes us to become truly whole, happy, healthy and confident people. Chassidus takes the superrational approach to addiction and to life. It tells us: you have the ability to be more than just you, you have the ability to rise above the falsehood and evil that the voice of the world tells you, as well as the voice inside your own self. You are not limited to it. You are not limited to physicality, you are not limited to your own nature, you are not limited to subrational tendencies, you are not limited to that of the rational realm, you are above it all. You are above it because you are connected higher—to a G-d that is above it all. Let’s live our lives in a super-rational manner thereby transforming the sub-rational part of ourselves into an anchor of strength, wholeness, and joy.
Practical Steps to Overcoming Addiction According to Chassidus:
– Take “preventative measures” to access the innate wholeness inside of yourself: tap into your G-dly soul through connecting to G-d by learning His wisdom, the Torah, and carrying out His innermost will and desire, the Mitzvos. Know that you have a precious and unique purpose.
– Recognize the enemy: know that there is an entity inside of you that wants, G-d Forbid, for you to be unhappy, unhealthy, and empty and thus tells you to turn to pleasure. Know that this “advice” is sub-rational.
-Say “no” to this enemy while you still can, don’t allow him to overcome you.
-If, G-d Forbid, one does get addicted, know that the only way to heal is through taking a super-rational approach—turning to G-d as the one and only entity that can get you out of this mess. Know that as a Jew, you are unlimited to logic as well as nature.
Sources and Footnotes
1 Clive G Hazell “A scale for measuring experienced levels of emptiness and existential concern” Psychological Reports 1984, 117, no. 2 (1984): 177-182.
2 Likkutei Amarim Tanya, Chapter 2
3 Likkutei Amarim Tanya, Chapter 20
4 Likkutei Amarim Tanya, Chapter 6
5 Likkutei Amarim Tanya, Chapter 26
6 A Parent’s Guide to Childhood Obesity: A Road Map to Health (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics
7 Likkutei Amarim Tanya, Chapter 18
8 Likkuteri Amarim Tanya, Chapter 6
9 Ma’amer Kutrus Uma’ayan, Chapter 1, Likuttei Torah, Chukat 56c ff: Hemshech 5672 vol. 1 p. 46. Torah Ohr, Miketz 38b
10 Basi L’Gani 5710: Basi Legani (5710): Chapter 3
11 Basi L’Gani 5710: Basi Legani (5710): Chapter 5