Thoughts have been flowing through my head all day, but being Shabbat I couldn’t write anything down. I’ve been up and down. There’s a lot of anxiety based around That Thing That I Won’t Talk About (Yet). The Thing is currently good (not sure if I’ve made that clear), but there’s a fear that I will ruin it somehow. There’s also a great deal of guilt connected to it, one way or another, which is probably misplaced. I’d really like to write about it, but I don’t think it would be wise. I try to trust in God that things will work out OK. Of course, I’m mature enough now to know that that’s “OK” from the point of view of His plan, rather than “OK” according to what I want now, so there can be pain when my wants are adjusted to meet His reality (what I want isn’t necessarily what I need).
The shiur (talk) in shul (synagogue) at seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) was about finding oneself (from Rabbi Y. B. Lieberman). It was good, but I’m not sure I can repeat it all (to be fair it was about fifty minutes long and on a fairly high level, with quite a bit of Hebrew and Aramaic thrown in). The key point was that one needs to find oneself before one can serve God or help other people (the technical point for those who understand: mitzvot between man and his fellow = Avraham; mitzvot between man and God = Yitzchak; mitzvot between man and himself = Yaakov which is the synthesis of the other two (this is all according to the Maharal)). The idea was that growth, finding yourself and connecting that inner self to God and to others is better than doing amazing things without that connection. The parable was a man who gave £3,000,000 he could afford (because he was rich) to build a shul so he could get his name on a plaque and because the committee provided an escape from his family versus a man who gave £300 to the same fundraising campaign but had to scrimp and save to find it, but who really put his heart and soul into it. The latter is obviously better, but it’s always been hard for me to hold on to this when I have been unable to do things because of my depression and even now that I am doing more, I still focus on beating myself up about what I find hard or impossible (serious Torah study, davening (praying) with kavannah (concentration), davening with a minyan (prayer quorum) etc.). But I do wonder how much I know myself and what kind of connection I have with God. It’s easy to fool myself into thinking I know myself and that I have a strong connection with God when I have no such thing, it’s just pride and wishful thinking and probably a dose of denial.
There was a time when I was very into the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe. (A Rebbe is a Hasidic religious leader, not quite the same as a rabbi, Hasidism being a sub-grouping of ultra-Orthodox Jews, although many Jews, such as myself, are open to elements of Hasidic teaching without being fully Hasidic or ultra-Orthodox.) He lived in the nineteenth century and was a fascinating personality. Considering that Orthodoxy can easily become conformist, he stressed individuality and originality to a great extent. He probably had a slightly anarchist streak; at any rate, he had no time for money, status or fame and showed no respect to those that he did not consider worthy of it, no matter what their position was in the community. He didn’t write any books (surviving ones, anyway; he wrote pages of notes, but burned them), but was known for his pithy, almost epigrammatic teachings, although it is hard to know how many of those attributed to him are authentic. He may have suffered from mental illness; at any rate, he spent the last nineteen years of his life shut away in his study, rarely receiving visitors and living on a bowl of soup a day.
I drifted away from his teachings for a long time, for an apparently trivial reason, but recently I’ve been forcing myself to re-read my favourite collection of his sayings, slowly, reading just a few a day, savouring them and mulling over the implications. I knew I had to return to him to find myself. In one of the most well-known stories about him, a student comes to him and asks to be his Hasid. The Kotzker asks him why he came and the man says, to find God. The Kotzker (who could be abrasive) says, “You wasted your time. God is everywhere; you could have found him at home.” Bemused, the man asks why he should have said he came. The Kotzker answered, “To find yourself.” I know I need to return to Kotzk to find myself, to learn how to be an individual, to learn the moral passion of the Kotzker. To learn how to survive in a world of hypocrisy and sham piety. To learn the art of silence. To learn that individuality is not expressed (as the world says) by doing what I want, but by serving in the way that only I can.
“There is nothing more whole than a broken heart, nothing straighter than a crooked ladder.” – Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk