Lectures on Chassidic Psychology Part 2: Work and charity — Psychological work and real charms

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The foundation of therapy—hard work and joy

Let’s say something more about the root of “advice” (עֵצָה) in the word “tree” (עֵץ).

Perhaps the most important article that we have written is “Rectifying the Ego” (in the book Lev Lada’at). This article tries to explain what “work” (עֲבוֹדָה) means. A Jew needs to work. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He wanted them to work and protect it. There is a saying from the Russian Jews who returned to the land of Israel in the late 19th century, “Work is our life.” This saying is basically very true. The question is how you define “work.” To reach the Tree of Life you have to work, this is the way of the land that precedes Torah. Man is not perfect. There is a gematria that equates “Mashiach” (מָשִׁיחַ) with “I am not right/perfect” (אֲנִי לֹא בְּסֵדֶר). This is the basis for all healthy lowliness in the psyche. Work means exerting the spirit and the flesh, as it says in the Tanya, but one needs some guidance about what to do. Work implies rational thought; it is not super-natural advice. The mind has to work hard to control the unrefined cravings and desires of the heart. There are people who come to a psychologist in search of an easy solution. The first thing to say is, there are no easy solutions. There is work ahead, and the work is difficult. With hard work, you can probably save yourself from having to take medicine in difficult situations. You do not have to end up taking pills—instead there is work, Divine work (or service), psychological work, which is truly hard, but it goes together with joy, “Serve God with joy.”

Charms—spiritual medicine

Work (עֲבוֹדָה) is alluded to in the initial letter of “tree” (עֵץ). The Jewish people are called am segulah, which tongue in cheek means that we are looking for “segulot,” which are “charms” or “shortcuts.” A charm is magical in a sense because you see the cause and the effect, but you can’t understand the connection between them. These are meant to be simple things that every person can do, like reading a few chapters of Psalms, and it makes you feel better. In a sense it is like taking a pill, but in this case, a spiritual pill. In the epistles in the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe explains that the charm for anything you might need in the world is charity. The sages say, “He who has compassion for created beings, the heavens have compassion for him.” There is a verse that reads, “free yourself from your sins with acts of charity.”[1] If a person has some sin—and all our problems are the result of our sins, beginning with Adam’s first sin, which we have all inherited—it can be solved with charity. Charity does not necessarily have to be money, it can be done with one’s body, etc. One can commit to helping someone. Charity is so powerful, that the Alter Rebbe promises that if we would give above and beyond our ability, we would live the best possible life, both materially and spiritually.

So apart from being one of the Torah’s commandments, charity is the all-purpose charm of the Torah. The letter tzaddik (צ) in “tree” stands for “charity” (צְדָקָה). Thus, we can start by saying that comprehensive advice should include two pillars, properly balanced: first, work and exertion on our psyche—which really refers to lowliness and nullification—and second, dedicating yourself to others above and beyond your good and kind nature.

The work of tzedakah and the act of tzedakah

Let’s continue with something more from the Tanya. The sages say that every Jew has three innate characteristics—compassion, bashfulness, and benevolence. Because a Jew is by nature compassionate, he wants to help someone in need in any way he can. This innate trait, says the Tanya, is called, “the service of tzedakah,” as in the verse, “And the service of tzedakah will be peace, and the toil of tzedakah quiet and trust forever” (וְהָיָה מַעֲשֵׂה הַצְּדָקָה שָׁלוֹם וַעֲבֹדַת הַצְּדָקָה הַשְׁקֵט וָבֶטַח עַד עוֹלָם). It is a good idea to teach children to recite this verse when they give tzedakah. It’s actually a good thing for anyone doing tzedakah to recite. It is a truly wondrous verse. The phrase, “the service of tzedakah” in Hebrew is literally “the work of tzedakah,” echoing the connection we just saw about comprehensive advice consisting of both work and tzedakah. The Tanya writes that “the service of tzedakah” refers to a Jew’s innate proclivity to be charitable. His heart tells him to help someone in need. That brings peace not the world, but does not lead to “quiet and trust,” just yet. So, what exactly is “quiet and trust?”

The Tanya explains in so many words that just as the “act of tzedakah” refers to the Jewish nature for charitability, so too “peace” means feeling good when things are going well, but there is no assurance that you will feel this way all the time. When standing in prayer, a Jew feels connected to God; he feels Divine revelation. But there is no guarantee that when he finishes praying and goes out to work and meets people and situations and events in his life, that he will continue to feel so good. The state of peace remains present spiritually. It is waiting for you. But it might not be present in your daily activities. All this if you have given tzedakah based on your innate nature. But, if you make a superhuman effort to go beyond your nature, that is called the “toil of tzedakah.” Toil means going beyond your nature. God created nature and created man to go beyond his nature, to be better than just naturally good (as in the Yiddish proverb, “If good is good, is not better—better?”). To be better than good requires toil in the psyche. The toil of tzedakah means giving more, far more than what your spiritual treasures demand and much more than the amount in your pocket. If a person gets in this habit than a habit becomes our second nature. Acts of tzedakah are also good, but if you are able to get into the tzedakah “zone” then the Torah promises you, “quiet and trust forever.” You psyche will be perennially calm and quiet.

In the Tanya’s introduction, it is written that the entire book is to help a person find “serenity for his psyche.” The entire book is good advice for what ails the psyche (so says the previous Rebbe). A person who has heeled himself is serene, he has “quiet and trust forever.” In fact, the book is about good advice, serenity, and trust. This can only be achieved through hard work and tzedakah, acts of tzedakah.

Advice from the Tree of Life goes beyond nature

The common denominator of tzedakah and hard work is that with them a person merits to go reenter the Garden of Eden, to return to the place where God meant him to thrive and to return to the Tree of Life. A Jew is referred to as “a walker,” “And I will give you the power to walk among these that stand.” Angels stand. Though they are in constant motion—run and return, up and down—they only seem to be moving, because they always go back to their origin. Only a Jew truly makes progress to some goal. The initials of “the path of the Tree of Life” (דֶּרֶךְ עֵץ הַחַיִּים) spell “consciousness” (דֵּעָה). Only a Jew has comprehensive consciousness—recognition that the way of the land precedes the Torah. The remaining letters of this phrase equal “chashmal” (חַשְׁמַל) the most mysterious word in the Tanach that alludes to the perfection of Divine service (the chashmalmal taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov). In a certain sense, the end is already included in the beginning, because the advice—the way of the land—are already inspired by the Tree of Life.

[1]. Daniel 4:24.

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