By R’ Chaim Bruk
Earlier this week, as I was flying back from New York, where I had the incredible z’chus to daven by the Rebbe’s Ohel, his resting place, in Queens, on the afternoon of his 27th yahrzeit, I was catching up on a few pages of Talmud in the Tractate Yoma and came across a beautiful discussion that I believe is vital in today’s world and can be helpful to many of us.
King Solomon says in Mishlei (Proverbs): “If there is care in a man’s heart, let him quash it.” Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi dispute the meaning of the verse. One said: He should forcefully push it out of his mind, reading the Hebrew as “yaschena,” literally, quash, while the other reads the word as “yasichena” and understands the verse to mean he should tell others his concerns to help lower anxiety. One is advocating for suppression of feelings and the other for expression of the “inner me.”
If I didn’t know better, I would think that Rabbi Asi and Rabbi Ami lived in Brooklyn in 2007 and were trying to figure out the best path forward for Torah-observant and mitzvah-loving Jews in the 21st century. When we encounter moments in our life that are super-stressful, when things happen to us and our loved ones that are harsh and create real anxiety, when we have feelings that are turning our innards into a living nightmare and we don’t know what to do, should we suppress it? Push it away and ignore it? Hope that, magically, it won’t wreak havoc on our lives down the road? Or should we gather up the courage and speak to our spouse, chat with a good friend, find a healthy therapist and get it off our chest, bringing healing to our dilemma?
If one has thoughts that are evil/unholy or morally negative in nature, the Alter Rebbe, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, writes in Tanya that we are to push those evil/unholy desires away. Simply put: we aren’t meant to analyze whether a particular biblical prohibition is wrong or not. It’s wrong because G-d said so and if one wants to break that mitzvah, he is to find it within himself to eradicate the idea itself from his mind. Yet, if someone is tormented, struggling with life, spirituality, relationships, religion, life’s purpose, his children, or his work, these are real life quandaries that aren’t evil in nature; they are simply a sign of one’s humanity. Suppressing them may work for a few, but for most of us, getting help in the form of speaking to those we trust is the way to go.
In this week’s parashah, Chukas, we read about the passing of Aharon HaKohen, the high priest. When he passed the verse says, “And every one of the house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days.” Rashi says “both the men and the women, for Aaron pursued peace and brought love between quarrelling parties and between husband and wife.” Moses was the greatest leader of Jewry bar none; yet, that role didn’t allow him to interact and chat with every person on the street who may have been sad or lost. If they were before him, of course he was their shepherd who tended to them with TLC, but time constraints, G-dly duties, and leadership personality didn’t allow him to talk much and to actively interact with the vulnerable. Aaron, Moses’ older brother, had an affinity and knack for listening to those who were struggling and for conversing with them until they felt better. He was a psychologist 3,000 years before Wundt, he was a psychotherapist generations before Freud, and he was a mediator before the ancient Greeks came up with mediation. He simply understood this Talmudic idea really well—talking openly, freeing those feelings without the paralyzing fear of being judged for them.
When I married Chavie back in 2006, therapy to me was taboo and only for “crazies.” Growing up, we didn’t do therapy because we “were normal.” Yet, as our marriage progressed and Chavie opened my eyes to an incredible world of inner work that is needed for survival, she taught me, and teaches me, how the ideas shared by so many therapists and counselors are deeply embedded in the Alter Rebbe’s ideas in Tanya and how a good dose of chassidic thought combined with great opportunities for talking these ideas through with professionals is a perfect recipe for a healthy human being. A stagnant, unchanged life is semi-death; growth is a sign of life.
I’ve got a very long way to go to perfect my inner workings and know how I feel, what’s causing those feelings, how to cope with those feelings, and how to ensure I don’t project my feelings onto others, but I’ve started that journey because that’s the whole purpose of a Jew—to become a better version of ourselves, to reveal the inner potential, and to make ourselves an improved, more in-touch, more in-tune vessel for the Divine light.
In the late 1980s, the Rebbe, of blessed memory, demanded of all his Chassidim that they each fulfill that which is written in Pirkei Avot, “Asei lecha rav,” appoint for yourself a mentor, and that each of us should have a personal mentor who guides us spiritually. This was not a replacement for a rav to consult on halachic issues, not a replacement for a doctor with whom we consult on medical issues, not a replacement for a therapist with whom we consult about emotional or mental-health issues, but a mashpia, a mentor, who will care for our soul and give us guidance in real life matters. It must be someone with whom we are comfortable sharing everything and it must be someone who will set us straight when needed. I don’t know what I would do without mine, and I think everyone should have one, too.
If you’re wondering how to get started on this journey, I would recommend checking out Chavie’s YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/ClearAsMud. Go to chapter one and start the journey of self-help from a deep chassidic perspective guided by modern therapy. You will be grateful that you did!
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail email@example.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.