Lectures on Chassidic Psychology Part 3: Healing Anxiety

The 42 Journeys of the Psyche

Parashat Massei (the parashah of the week) begins with a list of the 42 journeys the Israelites made from Egypt to the land of Israel. All the difficulties they had in the wilderness, which symbolize the difficulties of exile in our reality, are divided into 42 journeys. Chassidic teachings explain that these 42 journeys also symbolize the journeys that every Jew makes in this world, and all the journeys (reincarnations) of every soul. Everything we go through is a process—a process of leaving Egypt, a state of contractions for the psyche, and entering the land of Israel, which is a good and expansive land, symbolizing an unblocked state; a state in which a Jew merits to find his Jewish nature, constantly living naturally with God, with the clear recognition that God and the Torah are one. This also means to be with God all the time, to be with the Jewish people, with the Torah, with the land, and to make and effort that the consciousness of the land of Israel spread across the globe (as the sages say, “the land of Israel is destined to expand over the entire globe”).

Actually, the 42 journeys are like walking along the path to the Tree of Life. “The Tree of Life was in the garden,” represents the land of Israel and the Torah of the land of Israel. To reach it, one has to be “dynamic” [literally, one who can walk[1]], there is work that needs to be done, work and tzedakah—work on one’s lowliness and tzedakah by committing to help others—which prepare a person for progress.

But, every journey is different. This is one of the most special subjects in Torah. The name of each journey is symbolically significant.

“They journeyed from… and they camped in…”

The description of each of the 42 journeys includes this phrase, “they journeyed from… and they camped in….” Each of journey expresses the intent to leave a confined and limited state and to reach a wide, open, and expanded state. Every time you “camp,” it feels good (at least for a few minutes). You feel that you have arrived, having left a place that was constricted and blocked, where you were no longer comfortable and now (at least for the moment) you feel more comfortable. Lately, some of the students have been using the idiom, “The train is leaving.” We are on a journey, but there are stops along the way. What for? So that those that have not yet gotten on the train can do so. New people can join. Jews are travelers and as long as we have not reached our final destination, we keep traveling.

Wanderlust – a Jewish condition

The need to constantly be on the road, traveling is known as wanderlust. Sometimes it is the result of a psychological malady or syndrome. It itself can even be seen as a disease. In fact, wanderlust is a typically Jewish condition. There is no other people that has traveled so much through the world. It is almost like we have a craving to visit every obscure corner of the globe. Today it is a typical Israeli condition. But, in truth, all these travels are meant to bring the person to the actual land of Israel, the promised land.

It can even be that someone who was born in the land of Israel, and was brought up here, does not recognize that he is in the land of Israel. Therefore, he picks up and travels to India or Brazil. By doing so, he connects with his true essence.

Massei is a parashah about living with travels. We said that each of the journeys is a departure from Egypt, stages of the Exodus. But, is it not only the first journey that is the Exodus—the journey from Egypt to Ramses? In truth, each encampment becomes a new “Egypt”—another limited and constricted place, like a prison for the psyche. Therefore, another “they journeyed from…

The Journey to Charadah

The encampment and journey that is most related to mental issues and to mental advice is the one known as Charadah—the modern Hebrew word used for “anxiety.” Therefore, we would like to talk about it. What do you do with anxieties, with phobias?  The Torah starts with the words, “In the beginning… created,” whose Hebrew original can be rendered as “In the beginning… [be] healthy.” If you want to be healthy you need to look in the Torah, the “Torah of life”[2] (תּוֹרַת חַיִּים). All these journeys are meant to be positive in essence, because by passing through them, you end up arriving in the land of Israel. But, as it turns out you cannot reach your destination without passing through Charadah—anxiety is simply a necessary part of life.

The Secret of the 42 Journeys

As we will see, Charadah is apparently the most important stop among the 42 encampments. 42 divides into 2 times 21, where 21 is the value of the holy Name of God pronounced Ekyeh (אֶהְיֶה). This is the Name that God revealed to Moses when he asked Him what to answer if the Israelites would ask him who sent him. God said, tell them that “Ekyeh asher Ekyeh,” meaning, “I will be what I will be [sent you to them].”[3] This is the only instance this word appears as a Name of God in the Bible, so it follows that it is particularly related to the Exodus from Egypt.

It means that I am also aiming to be, to become—“I will be”—that which I truly am in my innermost essence. To leave Egypt means to always be in a state of “I will be,” “I will become.” This Name thus is an excellent description of what life is, “the path of the Tree of Life.” With this Name, you are always nearing the Tree of Life. Every time I think I know something—the goal of all knowledge is to not know—it annuls and I need to become something new.

In Kabbalah, Ekyeh is associated with the mother partzuf who is constantly pregnant and giving birth. It is therefore both about, “I am destined to become” and “I am destined to give birth.”[4] When a mother gives birth, she is actually giving birth to her own identity, that is why she refers to her giving birth as “I will be.” In fact, the entire Exodus from Egypt is likened in Kabbalah to a birth. That is why the heroines in Egypt were Shifrah and Pu’ah, the two midwives who according to the sages were Moses’ mother, Yocheved, and sister, Miriam.

Charadah—the Ekyeh journey

So there were altogether 2 times 21—the value of “I will be” (אֶהְיֶה)—journeys, which reminds us of the phrase God said, or, “I will be what I will be” (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה) journeys.[5] The interesting thing about the journey to Charadah was that it is the 21st journey, exactly the (feminine) middle of the 42 journeys.

“From whence do you come and where are you going”

To better understand the meaning of Charadah (anxiety) as a journey, one needs to know from where they came and where they were going[6]—what were the stops before and after. Altogether, as we said, the Ba’al Shem Tov says that every Jew goes through 42 journeys in life, but the one that is all-inclusive is Charadah. All of life is one big Charadah—one big anxiety, like the famous saying from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, “the entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear.” Meaning, that the whole purpose of traveling through the terrible wilderness full of snakes and scorpions and thirst without water is a state of fear and anxiety. But if a person recalls where he came from and where he is going, he can navigate it peacefully and even reach a state of eternal tranquility.[7]

So where did they come from? They journeyed from a place called Har Shefer. And where did they go? To Makheloth. These names, apart from being place names, also have symbolic significance. Even on the surface, in Hebrew the names Har Shefer and Makheloth sound very nice. So you came from somewhere good and you are going somewhere good. Just in the middle there is Charadah (anxiety). On the one hand, all of life is Charadah. On the other, it is just a layover between Har Shefer and Makheloth.

The Unborn Children on the Red Sea

The Torah has a Masorah, a collection of early notes on the text, which usually indicates if a word is rare. If a word appears only once, the Masoretic note will be “none” (לֵית). If it appears more than once in the Bible, then the note will be the number of times as a letter—ב for 2, ג for 3, etc. On the name Makheloth, we find that the letter ב. The other instance of this word can be found in the verse in Psalms, “Bless Havayah in choirs”[8] (בְּמַקְהֵלוֹת בָּרְכוּ אֱ-לֹהִים). The sages explain that the verse in Psalms is referring to choirs of unborn children who were still in their mother’s wombs who sang on the Red Sea in praise of the miracles. So, we have here a choir of pregnant women per se since in halachah, the unborn child is considered a part of his mother.

Recall that Charadah is the 21st journey and 21 is the value of “I will be” (אֶהְיֶה), which we said earlier is God’s Name associated with the mother principle. A woman has the power to say, “I will be” in the most potent way, since she can give birth and increase the image of God in the world. The Ba’al Haturim then connects the two instances of Makheloth and learns from them that the major form of anxiety stems from feeling pursued, like the Israelites were pursued by the Egyptians—both the actual people and by their spiritual minister above—on the Red Sea. A spiritual force can truly feel like it is pursuing someone. That is what the Ba’al Haturim explains. When the miracle on the Red Sea occurred, the relief led to the singing of the Song of the Sea, song of thanksgiving. Meaning, that the fear and anxiety were all so that they could arrive at Mahkeloth and sing their song.

The Song of the Sea as a Charm

We spoke about the need for hard work—that Chassidut Chabad in particular demands that we toil with our own strength to solve our problems. Still, people are looking for shortcuts, for segulot, which can offer them a quick sweetening of their pain. So what we have seen is that reciting the Song of the Sea can be a segulah. Indeed, in some sources it says that if a woman has not found her shidduch yet, she should recite the Song of the Sea every morning. Usually, the reason why a segulah works is unknown, but here we have something of an explanation: if you want to free yourself from of a state of anxiety (Charadah), then quickly jump to the resolution of Makheloth—where they sang the Song of the Sea.

An unborn child is a temporary and immature state. Indeed, sometimes, as the Tanya says, I meditate as prescribed during prayer but do not see any results. Do not then say, it did not work—because you did something. Rather understand that your meditation (which is a faculty that stems from the mother principle) can make you pregnant with love and fear, for instance. Your intellectual “womb” now contains fear and love (and you will “give birth” to them in the future). So even though the pregnant state is accompanied by anxiety, you can, like the unborn children, jump directly to the song of thanksgiving.

Segulot by Divine Providence

We are constantly “dancing” between hard work and charms—segulot. A segulah is good, especially one that is taken out of Torah learning. A person who advises according to Torah must carry many things in his bag, just like a musician has a repertoire of songs he can play. Such an advisor must first and foremost “live with the times.” This means that if someone, by Divine Providence, comes to seek your advice today of all days, you need to connect their needs with the parashah of the week that you just learned or with whatever else you might have just learned, or with something that you just heard. Joseph says about himself, “Indeed a man like me can divine.” This is not a simple statement since there is a prohibition against divination.[9] To be able to differentiate between divination that is permitted and the type that is not, one needs to be an expert physician. In Keter Shem Tov [the collection of teachings from the Ba’al Shem Tov] it is written that an expert physician is allowed and even obligated to use poison to heal. To utilize them properly, you must be the most expert physician. Thus, when Joseph said, “I can divine,” he was referring to using his Holy Spirit (Ru’ach Hakodesh), not the type of divination the Torah prohibits.

The bottom line is that there certainly are segulot that are harmless. They do not replace hard work, but if someone is in Charadah—facing a lot of anxiety—it can certainly aid in going directly to Makheloth.

Anxiety from Past Traumas

Let us turn to the “work,” aspect. According to the Ba’al Haturim, all anxiety stems from being pursued. Modern psychology calls this paranoia. Elsewhere, we have discussed the correspondence between the different psychoses and the Jewish year. Every holiday has the power to heal one of these psychoses in a “like cures like” manner, as in homeopathy. For example, schizophrenia is healed Purim.

Paranoia is healed on the seventh day of Passover. The first day of Passover heals claustrophobia. On the seventh day though, after a person has in his life advanced through half the journeys he needs to make, he is stricken with a crisis that makes him question whether to continue advancing or not. The anxiety that ensues is that he feels that he is being pursued.

Most generally, every person who has anxiety is being pursued. By what? By past traumas. In the past, the trauma made him freeze. Now, he can advance, he can move, but the fear, the anxiety continued to pursue him.

Makheloth—Support Groups

He needs to emerge from this. He needs to journey to Makheloth. Symbolically, in psychology this would stand for a support group. To emerge from anxiety to a support group. The word Makheloth stems from the description of Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron, “They gathered round Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far. The entire congregation are holy and God is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?’”[10] What Korach and his cohort wanted was to reach Makheloth—the state of sweetening—in which we could all sing and live together harmoniously. What they failed to understand was that even a choir needs a conductor to maintain their harmony. The conductor has to be raised above the choir, not out of a sense of pride and self-aggrandizement, but out of an inner sense of lowliness and with holiness. The conductor is Moses and not Korach, who lacked the humility and the inner lowliness.

Har Shefer and Pregnancy

Now where did they come from before Charadah? They came from Har Shefer. Just as Makheloth is related to unborn children and mothers in the middle of their pregnancy, so is Har Shefer. Har (הַר) in Hebrew is the two-letter root of the word for pregnancy (הֵרָיוֹן). Shefer is obviously phonetically similar (and symbolically therefore related) to Shifrah, the midwife from Egypt. So we have here another connection with pregnancy. It is well known that pregnant women suffer from anxieties. That is why they go to doctors for even the slightest thing, to do an ultrasound—something that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was opposed to unless there was some real fear for a life-threatening situation. In any case, from Har Shefer, from pregnancy, you reach Charadah and you need to make your way to Mahkeloth to turn it all into a song of thanksgiving.

Shefer is also related to Shapir (שַׁפִּיר), which is the Hebrew word for the amniotic fluid. When the sages want to commend someone for having said something wise, they say, “Moses, you have said well” (מֹשֶׁה שַׁפִּיר קָאָמְרַתְּ), indicating that words of Torah are “well said.” This connection between amniotic fluid and Torah relates to the statement that when in the womb, the child is taught the entire Torah. Shifrah was Yocheved, Moses’ mother. She is the archetype of a pregnant woman since she carried Moses in her womb and the sages liken it to a pregnancy of 600,000 children since Moses is considered equal to the 600,000 Children of Israel in his generation. A spark of Moses is to be found in every single Jew.

Anxiety from Giving Birth

The anxiety that follows the pregnancy is the anxiety surrounding the delivery. In the Exodus, there was the anxiety from Egypt pursuing us, but there is also the anxiety of being freed from Egypt. When you are freed, you are born into a new world, a new reality. This too is accompanied by anxiety and this is what lies behind anxiety from giving birth. Both the mother and the baby are afraid of the birth. The baby is afraid of its entrance into this world. But afterwards there is a great choir at home and with each subsequent birth, the choir grows.

This all relates to what we note many times regarding the Alter Rebbe’s teachings in Likutei Torah. In many of his essays, the Alter Rebbe begins by describing the trauma accompanying the soul descending into the body. On the one hand, to overcome the trauma, you have to forget it. On the other hand, if you do not remember it, you cannot go from strength to strength in your quest to serve God. In fact, the word “strength” (חַיִל) is related to the word for “fear” (חִיל). You cannot advance from strength to strength without experiencing some fear or anxiety.

Healing Trauma: Suppression and Speech

The emergency remedy for trauma is to forget about its cause. This is the like the toil of the beinoni, the Tanya’s intermediate personality. On the other hand, the toil of the tzaddik is to remember it. Whether to choose one solution or the other is one of the main questions in psychology—should we forget about a problem, or should we delve into it. We have written and spoken a great deal about this. As it turns out, being able to suppress the source of the anxiety is the emergency procedure, while the true rectification is like the work of the tzaddik, which involves being able to recall the source and feeling comfortable enough to discuss it openly and even “play” with its meaning, etc. This is what Isaiah describes that in the future, “A baby shall play over a viper’s hole.”[11]


[1]. See Zechariah 3:7.

[2]. Amidah prayer.

[3]. Exodus 3:14.

[4]. “A time to give birth” is the first of the 28 states of time described in Ecclesiastes, chapter 3.

[5]. In each of the tefillin (phylacteries)—the head and the arm tefillin—there are also 21, or “I will be” (אֶהְיֶה), instances of God’s essential four-letter Name, Havayah—altogether 42 instances. The tefillin are agents for drawing down the energy of the mother principle, allowing a person to “become” and make progress in life.

[6]. Avot.

[7]. Isaiah 32:17, as above.

[8]. Psalms 68:27.

[9]. Leviticus 19:26.

[10]. Numbers 16:3.

[11]. Isaiah 11:8.

Comments are closed.