Avraham ben Yaakov
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Jewish Pathways of Spiritual Growth

From Strength to Strength: Joy and Song

The Yoke of Torah * Looking for the Good * Your Good Points * The Music of Life * In Hisbodidus * In All of Life * Music * Dance * Other Ways to Keep Happy

In the same way, they put on the rest of their clothes, one by one.

“Joy in HaShem is your tower of strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

It must have taken a long time for the Wise Man to get the Prince to put on the rest of his clothes. He must have come up against resistances practically every step of the way. The Prince was probably wondering what a Turkey was doing wearing all these clothes. Maybe putting on a shirt and trousers had been fun at first, but now the Prince must have been re-experiencing the same old negative feelings that had driven him into his madness in the first place. He must have felt more like a Turkey than ever.

Still, the Wise Man continued with his work undaunted. He kept his eyes on the good in the Prince. He had his plan, and he patiently carried it out. Each garment he could persuade the Prince to wear was a victory in itself. More than that: putting them on, one after the other, kept the Prince moving forward, creating a rhythm. Getting the Prince drawn into this positive rhythm was the best way to circuit around the negativity in him and eventually overcome it completely.

Keeping active and positive has a power similar to that of music. You may be feeling extremely lethargic and uninspired, and if you try singing a lively melody to yourself, you might find it very hard to get into it. But if you force yourself to keep on singing, before long you'll start getting into the swing. Soon the song will be carrying you, and you won't want to stop.

The same applies to developing a positive outlook on your life in general. If you have had a tendency toward pessimism, it can be difficult to stir out of it at first. But if you push yourself for a while and make a real effort to look at things differently, you'll soon find that they really are better than you thought they were, and before long a new joyous spirit will lift up your entire life.

Nothing is more destructive to spiritual growth than negativity and depression. Genuine growth is a long, slow process with many ups and downs. It is harder to change than to stay the same. It is harder to strive for excellence than to be content with mediocrity. Almost every step of the way, there are likely to be obstacles of some kind, whether from outside circumstances and other people, or from entrenched forces within yourself. Obstacles can be very discouraging, but if you allow yourself to become demoralized, it could push you off the path completely.

No matter how much progress you make, encountering problems is an integral part of the process of growth: in fact, it is the efforts you make to overcome them that cause you to grow. Do everything in your power to avoid becoming demoralized. A happy, positive attitude will give you the inner strength to overcome all obstacles. How does one develop such an attitude? Before we try to find an answer, let us first look a little further into the problem.

The Yoke of Torah

The more seriously one takes one's Torah obligations, the more the Turkey is likely to rebel. The first encounter with Jewish spirituality may be as an enjoyable experiment, but sooner or later every Jew must come to terms with the fact that the path of the mitzvot involves commitment. Certainly the mitzvot are a pathway of individual spiritual growth, but they are also much much more. Accepting the mitzvot means taking on responsibility, not only to oneself but also to the rest of the world, whose welfare depends on them, and to God.

Most of the self-help practices currently popular in our culture leave their practitioners with an option: if you feel like meditating, exercising, eating macrobiotic, and so on, you do; if not, no-one is likely to force you. For a Jew, however, the Torah and mitzvot are not voluntary. Judaism is service. The Torah and mitzvot are called a “yoke”– like the yoke that keeps the ox harnessed to the plough, forcing it to work whether it wants to or not. The Torah and the mitzvot are obligatory.

You may have entered the spiritual path in the hope of getting free of Turkey madness, only to find yourself feeling more and more restricted by the numerous obligations and prohibitions of the Torah. Trying to lead a spiritual life day by day – observing the mitzvot, studying Torah, praying intently, practicing hisbodidus, taking care with your diet, exercising, etc. – while at the same time working for a living, spending time with family and friends, and doing all of the other things we all have to do, you may well feel like a juggler trying to keep too many balls up in the air at once.

The very pathway of hisbodidus that is supposed to transform us into joyous, spiritual achievers can at times feel like a heavy weight. Hisbodidus involves honest self-confrontation. You know that you cannot fool God or yourself. There is no retreat. Going back to being a Turkey ceases to be an option. You look at your faults and shortcomings. You know you have to fight them. But at times they seem more indomitable than ever.

The Princely side of us longs to draw close to God and keep the entire Torah. Often we set ourselves the highest goals, but when we fail, it is dangerously easy to become despondent. Some blame external factors, railing at the people and circumstances they believe to be preventing them from observing the Torah the way they feel they should. Others blame themselves. They look at themselves and the way they repeatedly violate their own high standards, and judge themselves guilty.

Frustration, anger, self-condemnation and similar responses trap people in vicious cycles of negativity and depression that can stunt all growth and change. Feeling they are bound to fail no matter what they do, they stop trying. They allow themselves to slip back into their old ways, gratifying their baser appetites as a way of forgetting their misery. Knowing how far they have fallen makes them even more frustrated and depressed. And so the syndrome continues, until they may end up further away than ever, locked in a cage of despair.

Looking for the Good

It is vital to make every effort to steer clear of negativity and depression, and cultivate a positive outlook. You may look at the people and circumstances that seem to be holding you back and feel frustrated and bitter. You may look at your own faults and shortcomings and feel strongly disappointed at your lack of progress. You may wonder if anything will ever change.

The solution is to learn to look at things differently. There may be little you can do to alter external circumstances or deeply-ingrained features of your inner make-up, but you can change the way you view them. In many cases, a simple change in outlook and attitude can transform even the toughest obstacles into powerful allies.

What you actually see when you look at something is largely governed by what you are looking for. If you expect to see bad, that is almost certainly what you will find. If you look hard enough for the good, you will eventually see it. This applies to the way you look at yourself, other people, the situations you face, and life in general.

Someone who is upset and angry about the way things are is really angry with God for making them so. This is one of the worst forms of arrogance there is. The angry person is saying “Why aren't things the way I think they ought to be?” Looking for the good requires an act of humility: “Maybe I am wrong in my ideas about how things ought to be.”

People often imagine that the barriers they experience in their efforts to come close to God are so great that they will never be able to overcome them. But the truth is that God only sends people difficulties that are within their capacity to overcome, if they fight with enough determination. All obstacles, whether external or internal, are sent by God. Every impediment is therefore a veil for God Himself. In reality there is no obstacle at all.

God put you where you are because this is the best possible place for you to be. He made you the way you are because this is how you can eventually experience God's goodness to the fullest extent possible, by rising to the challenge He has set you. Even when you feel under great pressure, make every effort to find God and turn to Him within the very situation in which you find yourself. Can you think of a positive reason why God should have sent you this problem? How can you benefit from it?

One of the chief influences on the way you look at life is the way you talk. If you keep on telling yourself that things are grim and unpleasant, that people and circumstances are against you, that you are unsuccessful and everything you try fails, then regardless of what may actually happen in reality, you are cued to notice only those segments of reality that fit in with your preconceived notions. The experiences you then have will simply confirm your worst expectations.

The foundation of positive thinking is belief in God and faith in His goodness. “God is good to all, and His tender kindnesses are over all His works... God is just in all his ways” (Psalms 145:9 & 17). The first step toward thinking positively is to try to talk positively, even if you are not yet completely convinced of the truth of what you are saying. Start by telling yourself that you believe in God, that God is good, and therefore things must be good, even if you cannot yet see how. When you are facing obstacles, whether external or from within yourself, affirm your faith out loud: “God, I believe in You. God is good. God, help me find the good.” Avoid talking negatively about situations and people, and, of course, about yourself. If you feel you can't find anything good to say, say nothing.

In the words of Rabbi Nachman: “When someone meets a friend, and the friend asks him how he is, and he replies, `Not good,' God says: `This you call not good? I'll show you what not good is' – and all kinds of bad experiences come his way. But when his friend meets him and asks how he is, and he replies cheerfully, `Good, thank God,' even though in fact things are not good, God then says: `This you call good? I'm going to show you what real good is!' “(Siach Sarfei Kodesh II:32).

Your Good Points

Those who study Torah literature on personal development and make a genuine effort to live up to Torah ideals are very likely to look at themselves and feel they are far away from where the Torah says they ought to be. Even after years of effort trying to improve oneself, one may scrutinize oneself and one's behavior carefully and feel that the Torah itself would condemn one.

It may well be that one has done, and continues to do, much that is wrong. One's behavior and personality may be far from what the Torah asks. Nevertheless, it will not help to get depressed about it. Instead of dwelling on one's bad points and failures, one should try to find good points and mitigating factors.

A person should not blame himself for having a Turkey side. God created him with it. If we did not have a baser side, our service of God would be worth nothing. If God had created us perfect, it would be as if God were serving Himself. Our service is worth something precisely because we are exposed to the full force of our lower instincts and desires yet we still try to fight against them and channel our energy into Torah and mitzvot.

The evil urge may lead people into sin, yet it was God's will to create us with it because of the preciousness of our efforts and sacrifices in trying to overcome it. Looking for the good in oneself does not mean pretending that the bad does not exist. The Torah teaches us very clearly what is good and what is bad. One cannot ignore the bad or perform some kind of intellectual trick and pretend it is good. The power of evil is very real, but this is, in fact, what gives value to the good we accomplish. The more people are pulled by their baser desires and involvements, the more precious their attempts to lift themselves up and come closer to God.

If one feels bad about oneself or some of the things one does, this in itself is an indication of an innate spiritual sensitivity. Instead of dwelling on the bad in oneself, one should train oneself to use this sensitivity to look for the good. One should remember the inner barriers one is fighting, and learn to appreciate the value of even a single good deed or mitzvah. Every act of charity and kindness, every word of Torah one studies, every prayer one offers, and every other mitzvah is a channel of connection with God's infinite goodness.

The world at large does not put much value on Torah and mitzvot – people are more impressed by luxury homes, flashy cars, expensive holidays and the like. Recognizing the preciousness of one's mitzvot means taking a bold step out of the value system of the surrounding culture. One can take pride in the fact that when one gets up each day, the first thing one does is to put on Tzitzit and Tefilin, bless God and pray for the world, rather than simply eating a big breakfast, going out to earn a lot of money, and trying to have fun.

The Music of Life

Rebbe Nachman teaches: “Search until you find a little bit of good in yourself. How could it be that you never did a single mitzvah or good deed in your whole life? You may start to examine this good deed, only to see that it is also full of flaws. Perhaps you feel the mitzvah or holy act was prompted by impure motives and you had improper thoughts and did not carry it out properly. Even so, how is it possible that this mitzvah or good deed doesn't contain the slightest good? Some good point must be there. You have to search until you find some modicum of good in yourself to revive yourself and make yourself happy.

“And in just the same way, you must carry on searching until you find yet another good point. Even if this good point is also mixed up with all kinds of bad, you must still extract some positive point from here as well. And so you must go on, searching and gathering together additional good points. This is how music is made(Likutey Moharan I:282).

A tune consists of a succession of notes. A musical instrument is essentially a sound-box designed to amplify the vibrations caused when the player plucks or blows, etc., depending on the instrument. In order to play the tune properly, the musician has to play each note correctly. This means setting off the right vibrations instead of hitting the wrong notes.

Our personalities are like musical instruments, and the quality of our lives depends on the way we play ourselves. If we harp on the bad in us, it causes bad vibrations in ourselves and the world around us. Looking for our good points is like playing the right notes and setting off good vibrations. The art of living is to look for one good point after the other, turning life into a melody. This was how the Wise Man proceeded with his cure of the Prince. He put on one garment after another, one mitzvah after another – going from one good point to the next – until it became a rhythm.

“When a person refuses to let himself fall, but instead revives his spirits by searching out and finding his positive points, collecting them together and sifting them out from the impurities within him, this is how melodies are made. Then he can pray and sing and give thanks to God” (ibid.).

The more you get into the habit of concentrating on your good points and enjoying them, the happier you will be. You won't have to work to fight off lethargy and depression. They will go away by themselves, until eventually you will realize that you are free of them altogether.

In Hisbodidus

During your hisbodidus sessions, take time to look for your good points. One of the foremost components of hisbodidus is self-examination. You look into yourself and evaluate your personality and behavior in accordance with Torah criteria, in order to know where you need to change yourself.

People tend to judge themselves much of the time, feeling good when they do good and bad when they do things they know to be wrong. However, people's self-judgment is often very partial: there are many who blithely ignore their worst aspects while wallowing in self-recrimination over relatively minor matters.

Hisbodidus makes self-examination and self-judgment into a systematic discipline. In itself the word “judgment” does not carry either negative or positive overtones, yet many people in our culture find it a forbidding term. They assume that all judgment is bound to be condemnatory, and insist that everyone should always be non-judgmental about everything. Perhaps this is a reaction to the negative way many people tend to judge each other and themselves. But the solution is not to give up forming judgments – that would be tantamount to giving up any value system whatsoever. The solution is to learn to judge favorably, ourselves and others.

In hisbodidus you sit like a court in judgment on yourself. You review what you have been doing, things you have said, and your various thoughts and feelings. You must evaluate them truthfully and understand clearly where you acted correctly and where you went wrong. But when it comes to passing judgment on yourself, don't think you must be harsh. Don't simply condemn yourself for the wrong you have done. Judge yourself favorably. In a court, the accused pleads for understanding. Be your own advocate: look at yourself sympathetically, and try to probe the underlying factors that drive you to do the bad things you do.

Besides thinking about what's wrong in your life, make it a regular habit to review the good things as well. In fact, this is the best way to start a hisbodidus session. We have seen that “acknowledging God for what is past” is the first stage in hisbodidus (see above, pp. 132-4). Begin your sessions by enumerating all the good in your life – from your health and strength, the food you eat, your livelihood and other material benefits to the many mitzvot and good deeds God has enabled you to perform. Thank God for each one in turn. This is the best way to open up a channel of sincere communication with God. You should then find it much easier to speak to Him frankly and openly about things you have done wrong and feel contrition, and you will come away feeling cleansed and at peace.

It is a good idea to take a pencil and paper and literally make a list of your good points. Include things you may consider relatively minor, even good thoughts, such as ideas you may have had from time to time about things you would like to achieve even if as yet you are nowhere near achieving them. You may not be able to make a complete list of all your good points in one session of hisbodidus. Keep your list and add to it in later sessions. Look over it regularly and think about the great value of the mitzvot God enables you to do.

In All of Life

“It is a great mitzvah to be constantly happy.”

Likutey Moharan II:24

Going from mitzvah to mitzvah and from one good point to the next is the pathway to enduring happiness. For some people the main joy in life is eating and drinking. For others it is their status and possessions, or their friends or families. But in the end only our mitzvot endure. As the Rabbis said: “A person has three friends in life: his possessions, his friends and family, and his Torah and good deeds. When he dies, he leaves all his physical possessions behind. His friends and family accompany him to the cemetery, but after the interment they too leave him. Only his Torah and good deeds stay with him for ever” (Pirkey d'Rabbi Eliezer 34).

If your happiness depends on something specific, you will only be happy when you have that thing. But when your happiness is from closeness to HaShem, you can always be happy. There is never a moment in the day or night that you cannot involve yourself in a mitzvah, thereby connecting yourself with God. Even when you are doing absolutely nothing, simply thinking of God is a mitzvah – faith – and “You are where your thoughts are” (Likutey Moharan I:21). Every single mitzvah is a connection with the living God.

If you want to make a lot of money, you must concentrate hard on the idea. Every day, all day, you must have one thought in your mind: am I gaining or losing, and how can I gain more? So it is with the mitzvot. Enjoy every mitzvah. Make it your goal to collect more and more. And constantly strive to improve and deepen the way you fulfill them.

Receiving the Torah and mitzvot at Mount Sinai was an event of pure joy. The key to the joy of the Torah path is to be found in the response of the Jewish People when God offered them the Torah. They answered that they would accept and fulfill it without first asking for an explanation of its deeper meaning. They agreed to carry out the practical teachings of the Torah in the faith that understanding would come later. “Na'aseh ve-nishma – We will do”– first – “and we will hear”– later (Exodus 24:7).

This means that each time one carries out a mitzvah, the practical action is followed by “hearing”– a deepening of one's understanding of the mitzvah itself and the Torah path in general. Every mitzvah we perform opens up new horizons of Torah and mitzvot – which in turn gives us new mitzvot to perform. Then, when we perform them, even greater horizons of Torah open up. Every mitzvah thus leads to further and deeper connection with God. Na'aseh ve-nishma, doing and then hearing, going from mitzvah to mitzvah, from good point to good point, from strength to strength, is the pathway of joy (Likutey Moharan I:22, 9).

Music

“The main way to attach ourselves to God from this lowly material world is through music and song.”

Rebbe Nachman quoted in Likutey Halachot, Nesi'at Kapayim 5:6

Get into the habit of always singing a tune. This is something you can do at any time. It is one of the simplest and most enjoyable ways of serving God, and also one of the most powerful.

Sing the holy melodies that you personally like and find inspiring. You can do this at home, at work, in the car – literally wherever you happen to be. Even if you cannot sing well, you can still inspire yourself with a melody sung to the best of your ability. If you are embarrassed about singing aloud or feel it will disturb others, you can hum quietly to yourself Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #273).

If you do not know many songs, listen to tapes or records and learn some more. Hundreds and hundreds of recordings of religious music are available today with all kinds of melodies – joyous, devotional, etc. – from the various traditions, Chassidic, non-Chassidic, Oriental, etc.

When you listen to a recording, learn to distinguish between the nigun – the melody line – and the particular interpretation, style of orchestration, etc. of this recording. Although many contemporary recordings feature rich orchestration, most traditional melodies would originally have been sung with little or no instrumental accompaniment. Learn the nigun itself and sing it the way you most enjoy it. If you play a musical instrument, play holy nigunim for your own enjoyment and that of your family and friends.

In hisbodidus, experiment with different kinds of melodies – joyous and devotional. Choose the melody you sing according to the mood you wish to create. Sometimes when you first start singing you may feel uninspired, but if you carry on singing you will gradually find that instead of your carrying the melody, the melody will carry you and steadily lift you higher and higher.

Sing or hum a nigun before you begin to pray. Sing your prayers to a happy tune. Make a special point of singing z'mirot joyously at the table on Shabbat.

Dance

The heart yearns to rise toward God and rejoice, but the weight of our physical bodies tends to pull us down to earth! In dance, instead of letting the body pull it downward, the heart lifts up the entire body. The dancer jumps and skips and raises his arms and waves them about. Much of life revolves around serving the body: working to feed it, clothe it, and attend to our many other physical needs. In holy dance the tables are turned, and the entire body is employed in the service of the soul, to praise God.

This may help us to understand the statement of the Rabbis characterizing the blissful harmony that will reign in the future, when God's plan for the creation will be fulfilled and Godliness will be revealed on every level: “In time to come, the Holy One, blessed-be-He will make a dance-circle of the Tzaddikim” (Ta'anit 31a). In holy dance, the physical body is elevated and used for the glory God. A dance circle has no beginning or end, so no-one is first or last: everyone is equal. This symbolizes the harmony that will prevail in the future. No-one will have any reason to hate or be jealous of anyone else.

Holy dance is an art we must rediscover, brothers with brothers, fathers with their sons, sisters with sisters, mothers with their daughters. Joyous dance is one of the strongest weapons against depression and despair.

Chassidic dance requires no training at all. It is completely free-style. Why not put on a tape or record one day in the privacy of your own room and enjoy a dance for the love of God, expressing your gratitude for your life, your health, your body and everything else that is good. Move in whatever way comes most naturally to you and discover your own body-language.

Join the dancers on Simchat Torah, Purim and Lag BaOmer, at chatunot (weddings) and so on. Participate just as much or as little as you wish, and as vigorously or as gently as you want. Rebbe Nachman's followers, the Breslover Chassidim, have a custom of forming a circle and dancing to the tune of a joyous nigun after each of the daily prayer services. Suggest to a few friends that you try the same in your synagogue, especially after the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming of the Shabbat) service, or at the end of your group study sessions.

Other Ways to Keep Happy

1. “First make yourself happy with worldly things. Do this to the best of your ability and you will eventually be able to attain genuine spiritual joy” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #177).

2. “It may be impossible to achieve happiness without some measure of foolishness. One must resort to all sorts of foolish things if this is the only way to attain happiness” (ibid. #20). Well-timed joking and fooling can be life-savers, as long as you do not let innocent fun degenerate into laughing at others, licentiousness or scoffing.

3. “If you are disturbed and unhappy, you can at least put on a happy front. Deep down you may be depressed, but if you act happy, you will eventually be able to attain true joy. The same applies to every holy thing. If you have no enthusiasm, put on a front. Act enthusiastic and the feeling will eventually become genuine” (ibid. #74).

4. If you can't be happy yourself, try making someone else happy! “With happiness you can give a person life. A person might be in terrible agony and not be able to express what is in his heart. There is no one to whom he can unburden his heart, so he remains deeply pained and worried. If you come to such a person with a happy face, you can cheer him and literally give him life” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #43). Smile at people!

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