Gitel Chana Levin, New Haven, Connecticut
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
Everything I needed to know about Chassidus, I learned from a person who couldn’t speak.
Years ago, when I was in college, I volunteered one summer in a VA hospital’s Physical Therapy Department. There was a young man there who had been in a coma for over a year as a result of a motorcycle accident. One day, he miraculously woke up. He was getting therapy to address his atrophied muscles and other sequelae of his trauma. The head injury left him unable to speak, though he understood everything and could write. He was well-liked by the staff since he smiled a lot but couldn’t ask anyone for anything.
I admired his happy nature, marveling at his upbeat attitude in the face of such devastating loss. To be in his twenties and be mute and have limited mobility would be enough to make anyone hopeless. He was trapped in his own body…yet, he smiled constantly.
After that summer, he wrote from time to time and once included the following quote cut out from a newspaper:
“What we are is G-d’s gift to us, what we become is our gift to G-d” – Eleanor Powell.
This was life changing for me – and all the more powerful coming from this person who had every right to give up, but instead chose to become a gift to G-d.
I thought of this quote often as I started to learn some Chassidic concepts I have found it to be a quick reminder of so many ideas expounded on in Chassidus that I can use it in a pinch to help redirect me when emotions might have kept “the mind from ruling the heart”.
Consider it a Chassidic “cheat sheet” for the following concepts:
- G-d is good - The very fact that we are here is a gift. It is a testimony to His goodness.
- Bittul – Remembering that everything we have is a gift from G-d helps us remain humble. We are not entitled
to anything. It is all a gift. Losing that sense of entitlement helps us appreciate what we have and not to envy others.
- We are put on this earth to make a dwelling place for G-d – We cannot do it alone, but as it says in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21)” We do this by making ourselves better people.
- Tikun Olam – We also do it by making the world a better place. We do not have to do everything, but we do have to elevate our little corner of the world. We need to extract the precious sparks of divinity trapped inside their prisons of physicality. This does not have to be as intimidating as it sounds. Anyone can do it – with a kind word, a blessing over food, helping someone in need; the opportunities for freeing those little packets of divine energy are endless. In fact, thinking we have to seek out some grand mitzva to make some sort of tectonic shift in the cosmos might actually blind us to the small opportunities G-d puts in our path every day as he “directs the steps of Man”. In other words, we must do our job, not someone else’s. Because if we don’t do it, it might not get done. The famed Chassid, Reb Zusha of Anipoli said his greatest fear when he would ascend to heaven was not that G-d would ask him, “why were you not more like Moshe?”. Rather he feared that He would ask him, “Why were you not more like Zusha?”. Each of us must fulfill our own potential, not somebody else’s.
- Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place
- We cannot judge others because we do not know what gifts they were endowed with by G-d to start with. Perhaps they were given much less than you? Nor do we know how far they have come with what they were given. How then, can we judge where they are now? As it explains in Tanya, if we were given their yetzer (inclination) with all its cravings, desires and weaknesses, we might not have done nearly as well! .
- We must judge ourselves – The rule to not judge others does not apply to ourselves because, while we may not know our fellow’s place, we do know our own place. To a large degree, we know what we are made of, what we should do and what we are capable of doing. We know when something is beyond us and when we are just being lazy, unkind, or oppositional. That is how the Tanya explains the Talmud’s statement about the oath each soul is charged with as it enters this world, “Even if the whole world says you are a Tzaddik, be in your own eyes ‘like’ a rasha”. Because we DO know what we were given and we know when we could have done much more with it. When we fail to maximize our potential, we are not Moshe or Zusha. It is much worse. When I fail to utilize my gifts from G-d to become better and make the world better, I am not me. Or at least the “me” I was capable of becoming. And while that may not make me a rasha, there is a faint resemblance – like a rasha.
For what greater loss is there in life than the missed opportunities put right in our paths to do what we were put on earth to do! You can be a wonderful person who doesn’t sin ever and still fall into this category. When you think of it this way, it turns out that the little corner of the world we were supposed to fix is actually within us!
This is actually quite exciting. It means whenever we catch ourselves falling short – not becoming as good a gift to G-d as we could be – it can actually serve as a guide to point us in the right direction. We now know exactly what we have to work on…at least until the next time. Because there is no nirvana in Judaism. No state of ultimate refinement where no more work has to be done. Even Raba (mistakenly) thought, “I, for example, am a beinoni, Because what was wonderful yesterday is inadequate today for your new, more elevated spiritual status today. This is also exciting and should not discourage anyone by causing him to think it is a hopeless task set before us. Rather it should serve as an impetus to do more. We must adopt the Olympic motto, “faster (zrizus), higher, (aliyah), stronger (chazak)” And on our path to become spiritual Olympiads, never become discouraged. We our on our way to becoming a gift to G-d.