Monday, September 12, 2016

First Mayanot Essay Contest Winner



Mayanot Women’s Program, First Essay Contest Winner 
Chassidus on Campus By: Emily Seynaeve
8 Av, 5776
August 12, 2016

I discovered Chabad for the first time at an info fair during my first year in college. I had a strong interest in Judaism and wanted to know about the lives my ancestors had. What holidays did they celebrate? What traditions did they have? After a lot of introspection and soul searching, I knew I found the right direction for my life and I made a commitment to learn and practice Judaism. However, I was still struggling with developing faith and spirituality. Our sages already commented on this issue because of the fact that we are commanded to love G-d. We recite in the Shema every day, “You shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”[1] but how can we possibly be commanded to feel something? Maimonides states that,
            “The 3rd mitzva is that we are commanded to love G-d (exalted be He), i.e. to meditate     upon him and closely examine His mitzvot, His commandments, and His works, in order   to understand Him; and through this understanding to achieve a feeling of ecstasy. This is            the goal of the commandment to love G-d.”[2]

I interpreted “examine His works” as an instruction to study the natural world since everything that happens in the world is a result of G-d’s will. The Alter Rebbe also discussed meditating on the natural world, but just as one of two approaches for developing a love for G-d. The quicker method is uncovering the natural love that every Jew has for G-d. The second, more difficult way, is through meditating on G-d’s greatness. But as the Alter Rebbe pointed out, “Meditation requires knowledge of the subject at hand, and intellectual predisposition.”[3] Over two years of learning, I used the Alter Rebbe’s second method and developed my love for G-d through science and other secular classes.
           
After five weeks at Mayanot, my entire strategy for developing a love for G-d changed. Learning Chassidus every morning changed how I looked at G-d’s role as the creator and what “unity of G-d” actually means. The Chumash classes taught me how to read between the lines and look for the deeper meaning. The chavrusa style forced me to push myself in Hebrew and critical thinking skills. Instead of focusing on the intricacies of the natural world as a way of developing a love for G-d, I started working on my spirituality by meditating on the essential connection and relationship I have to Hashem. Every day at Mayanot offered new insights and endless inspiration which made it easy to feel a connection. However, I know it will be challenging to go home and study on a secular campus. If I’m not careful, I will lose my inspiration and get lazy with my learning. On the bright side, I’m confident that the Chassidus I learned at Mayanot gave me the tools I need to stay focused and motivated, especially when confronted with challenging situations.
           
College is a unique time in life. I’m at a point where I’m not responsible for anyone but myself. I don’t have children to take care of or a spouse to check in with. Ideally, I should use this time to focus on improving myself, but I only focus on myself externally. One of the reasons I came to Mayanot was to give myself the necessary space from my daily routine in order to work on myself internally. When I’m in school, I have little time dedicated to developing my spirituality. My schedule starts early in the morning and goes late into the evening. I constantly run back and forth between classes, work, club meetings, and study groups. I have little time for introspection. This causes a lack of menuchas hanefesh, or peace of mind. The solution I drew from Chassidus is to remember my purpose in life. A lot of people, including myself, confuse their purpose in life with their own definitions of self-worth. Many students only think they have self-worth if they ace an exam or secure a decent job. On a college campus, failure is equivalent to worthlessness. These pressures and expectations only add to the turmoil of college life. Chassidus illuminates the idea that self-worth does not come from academic or professional success. Self-worth comes from the fact that we exist because G-d saw worth in us. No amount of academic or professional struggle can diminish our essential self-worth. In order to internalize this idea, you need to be in a state of bitul. Bitul means that you have a sense of self-worth that comes from something higher than yourself. Even so, self-worth is not equivalent to purpose. In chapter 33 of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe explains that our real purpose in life is to create a dwelling place for G-d. We do mitzvot to connect to Hashem and when we choose to connect, we create a dwelling place for G-d. While mitzvot are expected of every Jew, we each have a personal mission to fulfill. Even when my schedule is overwhelming, I need to realize that I’m here because of something greater than myself. I know now that what I’m doing in school and work is really just a means of fulfilling my mission; it is not who I am essentially. When I realize my greater purpose, I can better focus on developing my relationship with G-d.
           
Even though meditating on G-d’s greatness and the purpose of life is theoretically always accessible, it is still difficult on a campus with a lack of resources. There are no longer Chassidus classes in the morning, philosophy in the afternoons, or farbrengens that go late into the night. It is easy to lose inspiration when it is no longer right in front of me. Chassidus taught me that just because I don’t see G-dliness, does not mean that it does not exist. I still have to strive to reveal the G-dliness in my surroundings. This is one of the most basic concepts of Chassidus: G-d exists and there is “none besides him.”[4] It would seem from this verse that we actually don’t have a purpose on earth. If nothing exists but G-d, then surely the world does not actually exist. Yet this definition of G-d’s unity does not contradict the existence of the world, because it says in the Torah, “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.”[5]  
           
Chassidus explains that the world evolved through seder hishtalshelus. The Previous Rebbe taught that “Hishtalshelus is the progressive chain of descent from one level to the next.” [6] He then goes on to explain that “The manner of understanding G-dliness is twofold: that G-d is all and that all is G-d. Both these aspects contain profound intellectual concepts. G-d Himself, however is “atzmi,” or “essence,” and totally beyond comprehension. All that can be comprehended is ha’orah, the radiation emanating from His essence.”[7] This means that the world we perceive is still G-d’s essence, but with a higher level of concealment. The application of this idea is just because I don’t see revealed G-dliness on campus, does not mean it does not exist; I just have to work harder to see it.
          
 While it is true that G-dliness is everywhere, true appreciation of G-d’s unity comes from study. I know at some point I’ll face a lack of motivation to learn. In college, I have to reach out to find chavrusa partners and work harder to keep up with my learning. I was easily motivated at Mayanot when I had hours of time to study and a classroom of girls to learn with. I may still be motivated when I get back, but I know over time that I might readjust to my old routines and lose touch with the passion I found at Mayanot. In the beginning of the summer, I thought my passion came from a purely intellectual place. I loved the satisfaction of translating a line of Hebrew and piecing out cases from the Mishna. Over time, I realized the joy I felt actually came from a deeper level. My joy came from reconnecting to Hashem and the mitzvot in a totally new way. Chassidus taught me that the reason why we do mitzvot is because we care about what Hashem wants and want to strengthen our connection with Him. If I keep this in mind, then the mitzvot I do will only strengthen my will to keep learning and trying to connect on a deeper level. The Alter Rebbe explains this concept in chapter 44 in Tanya when he says “the individual’s love of G-d will encourage him in his Torah study, since He realizes that this will enable him to draw down the infinite light of the Ein Sof and become united with G-d.” [8]  The G-dly spark in each of us wants to connect back to its source. Revealing this hidden love is not an impossible task. If one makes it a habit to do mitzvot with the intention of connecting to Hashem, the natural love for Hashem will eventually be revealed. The Alter Rebbe then goes on to say “These levels of love are the cause of the performance of one’s Torah and mitzvot, for they result from the portrayal of this love in his mind.”[9] This means that even after long days of classes and work, if I can remember why I do mitzvot and why I want to connect, I can further reveal the natural love for G-d that keeps me motivated.
           
Even when I’m not actively studying Torah, love for G-d can still be stimulated on campus in my secular classes. When I sit in anatomy classes, I can think of the words of Rav Yonasan Eibeshutz,
            “One who is proficient in anatomy recognizes Hashem’s great love for man and the wisdom involved in his creation. One becomes aware all his needs are performed by different organs- some are hard while others are soft, some are dry while others are moist- and yet they work together precisely. ‘How great are your works, Hashem, You make them all with wisdom!’”[10]
          
 My time at Mayanot may be coming to an end, but that is not an excuse to stop learning. I may face more challenges at home than at seminary, but learning Chassidus gave me all the tools I need to keep pushing forward. Whether I’m learning Torah, sitting in class, or going to work, I know I can think about why I’m here and reconnect to the passion I kindled over the past five weeks.





End Notes: 
[1] Pesachim 56a: Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:31, 35, 36
[2] Maimonides. Sefer Hamitzvot. Translated by Berel Bell. http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/940228/jewish/Positive-Commandment-3.htm
[3] R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Lessons in Tanya. Translated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg. Edited by Uri Kaploun. Vol. 1: Likutei Amarim. Chs. 1-34. Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1993.
[4] Deuteronomy 4:35
[5] Gn 1:1
[6] Schneerson of Lubavitch, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok. ""And Now, Our G-d, Hearken to the Prayer of Your Servant."" Translated by Sholom Wineberg. In Chassidic Discources, 25-26. Vol. 1. Brooklyn: Sichos in English, 1999.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Lessons in Tanya. Vol. 2. Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1997.
[9] Ibid.
[10] V'Ani Tefillah Foundation. "Hashem's Chochma at Work." Praying with Passion 11.

Works Cited:
  • Maimonides. Sefer Hamitzvot. Translated by Berel Bell. http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/940228/jewish/Positive-Commandment-3.htm
  • Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Lessons in Tanya. Translated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg. Edited by Uri Kaploun. Vol. 1: Likutei Amarim. Chs. 1-34. Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1993.
  • Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Lessons in Tanya. Vol. 2. Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1997.
  • Schneerson of Lubavitch, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok. ""And Now, Our G-d, Hearken to the Prayer of Your Servant."" Translated by Sholom Wineberg. In Chassidic Discources, 25-26. Vol. 1. Brooklyn: Sichos in English, 1999.
  • V'Ani Tefillah Foundation. "Hashem's Chochma at Work." Praying with Passion 11.