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Meditation for the Rest of Us

Meditation for the Rest of Us

from the upcoming book “Wisdom to Fix the Earth”

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© Leon Zernitzky
© Leon Zernitzky

There was a time when the Land of Israel was filled with teachers called nevi’im, and their students, b’nei ha-nevi’im. We call them prophets, but they were much more than that. They were spiritual seekers, men and women who left behind the vanities of the temporal world to live on mountaintops and in desert caves. There they meditated, strummed their instruments and chanted until entering a deep trance, visiting the higher worlds where things yet to come could already be perceived.

In later times, the sages of the Mishnah sat in circles, escaping their bodies to wander through heavenly chambers and perceive the secrets of the angels. Then there were the philosophers who sat in perfect stillness for endless hours contemplating existence and being, time and space. And the Kabbalists who attained visions and mystic union through meditation on combinations of Hebrew letters and connections of the sefirot.

But these were all special people, removed and aloof from the common person’s world. The ordinary man or woman, if inspired with love of G‑d, loved G‑d and did what was right to do. And if he or she felt no love, you still have to do what you have to do—either out of fear of punishment, anticipation of reward, or just plain habit.You cannot have love and awe towards an unseen Being you never think about.

Yes, our Torah says we must serve G‑d with love, with awe and with joy. But, as Maimonides wrote clearly, you cannot have such feelings towards an unseen Being you never think about. Emotions, the Zohar tells us, are children of the mind. Lasting, real emotions are born from a union of the mind with a higher vision beyond the mind. But if you are tied to the earth, the body and its pleasures, wrestling in the mud with incessant impulses, urges and desires, unsure how you are going to provide a meal for your family that day, how are you to sit and contemplate the mysteries of the universe and its Maker?

In the Presence of the Master

But then the Baal Shem Tov came and he taught that every one of us, no matter how entangled with this world, no matter how low it may have dragged us down, must awaken the innate love of our souls to serve the Creator with all our hearts. Wherever he went, he would share the words of the Zohar, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes yelling it from the top of a barrel in the marketplace: “G‑d wants your heart!”Eventually, someone had to write the do-it-yourself manual for us regular people.

In the presence of the Baal Shem Tov, no matter who you were, your heart caught afire with his love and joy. So too in the presence of his disciples, all luminous, radiant souls. But eventually someone had to write the do-it-yourself manual for us regular people to achieve that experience through our own hard work. Because it’s real only when accomplished through your own hard work.

That someone was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, often known as the Baal ha-Tanya, after the small do-it-yourself manual he wrote that came to be known universally as the Tanya (the Aramaic word tanya is the first word of the book). He, however, called it Sefer Shel Beinonim, which could be translated as The Book for the Average Person. Or, more literally, The Book for Those In-Between.

A Guide For the Rest of Us

In between what? In between two conflicting personalities fighting it out inside a single body, a divine soul pulling upwards, and a beast pulling towards whatever feels good. This book was written to instruct us how to bring some heavenly peace and love into our down-on-earth battle zones. In other words, a book for the rest of us.

Much of the advice is radical and counterintuitive.

For one thing, we are told to embrace that inner struggle. Why? Because inner conflict is evidence that we are accomplishing something. If that beast inside you is not kicking back, it must be you’re not leading it anywhere. If you find it throwing you all sorts of wanton thoughts and wild impulses at you every time you try to do something good, that’s evidence that you’re riding the beast and it’s not riding you. Sit high in your saddle, remain the master, and you’ve already begun to tame your animal.

For another, we are told that closeness to G‑d is not reserved for those with access to the mountaintops. Closeness to the infinite is more about effort than altitude. The infinite G‑d can be found anywhere, at anytime, by anyone. On the contrary, it is in the lowest and most simple, the brokenhearted and the humble, that the Infinite Light may shine most pristine.

The stumbling blocks on the path to spiritual growth are sadness, feelings of inadequacy, unwarranted guilt, anxiety and a stuffed-up heart—and the prescriptions provided for these are almost always not what you would expect. Feeling inadequate? Stop setting unreasonable expectations—that’s pure arrogance. Disappointed with how life is turning out? Look deeper, see beyond your pain, and you’ll discover that all is for the good. Burdened by guilt? Leave that for a time when you can deal with it. At all times, serve G‑d with joy in all you do.

Meditation, Redefined

These were all foundational teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, clearly articulated and made readily applicable for all. Rabbi Schneur Zalman added a vital ingredient: He redefined meditation to make it accessible to this average, in-between warrior.Meditation had once been a jailbreak for the mind’s flight from the body. Now it became a way for the body to join with the mind.

Meditation had once been a jailbreak for the mind’s flight from the body. Now it became a way for the body to join with the mind. In Tanya, the goal of both meditation and prayer is to awaken a sense of love and awe that overflows and sweeps up the beast in its path. To fix up that animal.

To do that, Rabbi Schneur Zalman had to develop a way to explain the most esoteric Kabbalistic concepts—creation from nothing, the order of worlds and sefirot, the Infinite Light and the dissolution of being within that light, the soul and the purpose of its descent into a human form—to a beast. Meaning, not only to a G‑dly soul, but to a rational, human soul, and even to the beast pumping within the human heart, interested only in “what’s good for me.”

How did he do that? In major part by enlisting the human psyche as a map of the divine. We are constantly traversing worlds within ourselves, moving from the inner light of the soul through innumerable layers of desire, intellect, emotion, thoughts and words until radiating all the way down to the realm of real-life action. Our psyche even contains a magnificent model of creation ex nihilo—the emergence of articulate thought from emotion and intellect. By contemplating our own inner experience, we are capable of catching a glimmer of G‑d’s Infinite Light with our world and with ourselves. And that glimmer is all it takes to awaken the innate desire we all harbor to merge with that light, and our sense of awe standing before it.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught not only scholars, but also merchants, craftsmen and farmers how to contemplate ideas that were previously the domain of a select group of special souls. He brought many a stray soul back home, and they too learned to contemplate the divine. He called his method Chabad.

Meditation in Techno-Land

Rabbi Schneur Zalman lived and wrote on the cusp of modernity. The Tanya was composed as all of Europe was reverberating with the French Revolution. His heirs—six generations of them—succeeded in sustaining and developing his teachings through the rapid and often violent upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries. Transplanting the meditative practice of Chabad from Eastern Europe to the high-strung, hyperactive techno-world of today has been challenging—especially when Chabadniks are scattered around the world, running a marathon to keep basic Jewish practice alive and well.If there ever was any era when Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s meditation-for-the-masses technique was most needed, it is today.

But if there ever was any era when Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s meditation-for-the-masses technique was most needed, it is today. Crowded between the tall concrete towers that hide us from G‑d-made nature, caught in a furious chase after career and status, our minds crammed with the noise of a thousand commercial messages per day, our emotions jaded by hyper-stimulation until we have lost the ability to cry, to stand in wonder, to love, to be real—what we need is a deep cognitive reframing of who we are and what is our world, a higher perception that provides not just purpose, but peace of mind and the fearlessness to carry out our purpose.

We have to redeem that gray matter in our skulls from the captivity of mass media. We have to reclaim it for our own good use, so we can transform our perception of life in this world, and thereby transform the world.

And once we have done that, we will learn to pray again: to stand within the empty hollow of the universe, our hands uplifted, our hearts bared, and call out with awe and with wonder, with love and with joy, “You.”

See Likkutei Torah, Bechukotai 47c. Sefer ha-Maamarim 5700, p. 92.
Maamar Beyom Ashtei Asar” 5732. Philosophy of Chabad, vol. 2.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Chaim Leib (Leon) Zernitsky has created fine art and illustrations for international magazines, book publishers and major corporations for over 25 years. He has published over 30 books for children and young adults and won numerous awards. Chaim Leib feels that creating Jewish art is an important part of being a Jewish artist, and his paintings can be found in private collections worldwide.
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Gedalia Goldstein Rechovote, Holy Land September 15, 2014

gratitude BS'D
SHALOM to my dearest Rav Tzvi- I owe you so much! A day doesn't go by without my first dive into the computer (snake) being your healing daily dose. I don't know if you remember me- I mailed you a few years ago when my children whom are The Rebbe's Shluchim in Bangalore suggested that I translate your first Bringing Heaven down to Earth to hebrew. Of course I rejected the idea for the simple reason that your profound english masterpiece of a presentation of The Rebbe's Wisdom deserves only one who can do it justice in hebrew- and that is certainly not me. And- this recent file is even better than the previous ones (maybe I'm just clearer) & I will never find the right words to express my appreciation & awe with the way you 'bring it all home!' Gedalia Goldstein- drummer of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, presently living in Rechovote after almost Ketiva vachasima tova. Reply

Anonymous September 11, 2014

The "Chabad Method". I think I will substitute that phrase for Chabad in conversation now. I know I will read more about it. It seems so many people dismiss Chabad as close-minded fundamentalist. Funny that it seems to be me, a Reform Jew, who is enlightening them. Maybe just enough for them to look deeper. Reply

Peter Salamon Lima, Perú September 10, 2014

Thanks. Reply

Tim Ouellette Boston, MA September 10, 2014

All clear, so how do we do this? Reply

Anonymous September 10, 2014

Does the book sefer of beinonim tells you how to change to be pardoned by a close relative you've made suffer? Reply

All Things Jewish August 2, 2014

so good thank you - definitely to be shared. also like Anonymous from Canada remark Reply

Anonymous Rzeszow Poland July 31, 2014

Very inspiring informations. Thank G-d for such beautifull lesson. Reply

Anonymous canada July 30, 2014

no to plato This article restores.
My faith was soon corrupted by greek dualism. I notice how close your writing comes to confirming these ascetic practices when you describe the practices of the prophets. They almost sound like monks! . But I just hold on fast, keep reading and quickly see the difference. The brilliance and wisdom of HaShem in His creation of body and soul...as revealed through the faith of Israel.
I feel instantly elevated!
If I did not learn these truths from Judaism, I would simply have been stuck holding the Platonic view or making a departure to a wasteland of one dimensional flat theology. Moving from error to error. Destitute.

My soul saddled up by the beast!

Thank you for confirming my souls genuine struggle for freedom.
Thank you for enlightening one from the nations! Reply

Ron and Bonnie Young July 30, 2014

Most beautifully written. Thank you for your insight and devotion to impart light. Shalom! Reply

Julie Smith Sydney July 30, 2014

I love Rebbes 1, 5, 6 & 7 but Rebbe 1 totally has my heart. He is beautiful and brilliant and so is his Tanya. Reply

Debra London July 30, 2014

Beautiful article Reply

Yossi July 30, 2014

Thank You, Rabbi....... Reply