The Origins of Self-Examination

When Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi,1 the first Rebbe of the Chabad chassidic movement, was imprisoned in Petersburg for subversive activity against the Czar, he was visited by the chief investigator. “How is it,” he asked Rabbi Shneur Zalman, “that the G‑d in your Torah asked Adam, the first man, ‘Ayeka — Where are you?’ Surely G‑d knew where he was!”

Rabbi Shneur Zalman responded: “‘Ayeka — Where are you?’ is G‑d’s call to every person on earth, asking, ‘Where do you stand?’ A person has been given so many days and so many years on earth, and he must constantly ask himself what he has accomplished in those years and how much good he has contributed to the world.”2

From the creation of human life close to six thousand years ago, man has been asking himself the same question: “Ayeka: What’s the right way to behave? Am I on the right path? Have I acted correctly? How can I rectify my flaws and shortcomings? How can I find peace?”

In various stages of history, society has provided man with the means of self-rectification. On an external level, laws and court systems were instituted to keep man’s more primal and selfish instincts in check. In agricultural and industrial societies, involvement in back-breaking manual labor prevented man from engaging in much more than the struggle to secure his physical needs. More recently, a preponderance of leisure time, the lack of political oppression, and the explosion of self-help/psychological modalities have provided people with the means and the environment to explore their inner psyches in an attempt to find moral guidance and true peace.

The Divine Road to Self-Awareness

Like everything in life, that which is man-made is prone to the flaws and limitations of the human condition. Various schools of psychological thought have peaked and waned in the last few hundred years, flowing from one ideology to another in an attempt to create sense and stability in a seemingly irrational world. One generation may tout leniency in child-rearing; another, military strictness. One generation may promotepuritanism andtherestraint of one’s bodily drives; another may encourage indulgence. The inconsistency in these methods of guidance is not intrinsically bad, it’s just not the truth: anything true by its very nature is eternal and unchangeable.

Torah and its mitzvos, rooted as they are in their Divine source, are the only constant in an ever-changing world. The unfolding of G‑dly wisdom — from the Five Books of Moses, to the “Oral Law” of the Talmud, to the Kabbalah and the inner spiritual dimensions of chassidic teachings — has provided man with Divinely inspired answers to the moral, spiritual, and existential questions that have plagued him from the beginning of time.

The Advent of Chassidus

The mid-1600s marked one of the darkest periods in Jewish history. Two major events threatened the physical and spiritual survival of the Jewish people: the crippling Cossack persecutions of Jews in Poland, Ukraine and White Russia led by the demonic Bogdan Chmielnicki, and the spiritual chaos that followed the exposure of messianic hopeful Shabtai Zvi as a fraud and apikores (heretic).3

Against this backdrop of havoc and despair, the great chassidic master, the holy Baal Shem Tov,4 introduced the remedy for the ills of the Jewish nation by revealing a body of Torah wisdom known as Chassidus, the mystical dimension of the Torah. The revelation of these teachings — encompassing philosophical insights, the mystical secrets of Creation, psychology, and a down-to-earth guide for refining one’s social and personal behavior — provided the spiritual “smelling salts” for the collective “faint” of the Jewish nation.5

Little by little, the promulgation of chassidic teachings revitalized the spirits of the Jewish people and put them back on their feet. In addition to providing them with a profound intellectual wellspring of Divine wisdom, Chassidus guided and inspired their spiritual reawakening and healing. And these same teachings, shaped and disseminated by the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, the Maggid of Mezritch, and the chassidic Rebbeim who followed, are as much an antidote for the spiritual ills of today as they were then.

The Talmudic Sages tell us that “G‑d always provides the cure before the affliction.”6 In the Baal Shem Tov’s times, chassidic teachings provided the remedy for the ailing soul of the Jewish people; so too in our times, Chassidus has the power to heal all the spiritual plagues we now face.7

We are currently witnessing an unprecedented search for meaning and moral guidance, as the Psalmist says: “This is the generation of those who search for Him.”8 Fed up with greed, the superficiality of western culture, and the turmoil of world events, people are turning to G‑d for comfort and meaning. Psychology and self-help teachings, while helpful to an extent, have not provided adequate solutions for issues such as existential doubt, spiritual struggles, and the ability to face life’s daily challenges with equanimity. The teachings of Chassidus, if followed as prescribed, can bring about lasting and positive transformation in all areas of one’s life.

Chassidic Wisdom Distilled

For time-tested spiritual and emotional healing, chassidim have always looked to stories about, or advice from,tzaddikim — righteous people whose entire being is bound up with G‑dliness. People are born with two inclinations — an inclination toward selfish bodily drives and a transcendent drive toward Divinity — and they spend their lives engaged in the battle between them. But in every generation there exists a small number of tzaddikim, holy people who are motivated by their G‑dly soul alone,9 and we look to their behavior as the quintessential example of how best to live our lives. With his only desire to fulfill the will of the Creator, the tzaddik is an earthly representation of human perfection. Although a real person of flesh and blood, he is our earthly metaphor of how G‑d behaves and wants us to behave.10

The chassidic story usually presents a common scenario or dilemma in which a tzaddik, or one of his disciples, demonstrates an exemplary mode of behavior, either personally or through his advice to others. Moreover, although colorful stories such as those presented here are often deceptively simple, they embody profound universal messages. They bring to life many of the deepest teachings of Chassidus, elucidating abstract or philosophical concepts in a format one can easily absorb.

The ease with which a listener can involve his heart and soul in the characters and situations of a story is probably the secret of its impact. Identifying with the predicament challenging each character, the listener considers the choices made by the tzaddik in the story and anxiously seeks to anticipate the solution he proposes. In the same way, as we today read — or experience on video — the advice and guidance offered by the Rebbe11 to men and women in thousands of life’s situations, we can learn to emulate his attitudes onlife by allowing this advice and guidance to inspire our own decision-making.

The profundity of a chassidic story was plumbed by the founder of Chabad Chassidus, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, when he said: “When we used to hear a teaching from our mentor, the Maggid of Mezritch, we saw this as the Oral Torah, but when we heard a story from his lips, this was our Written Torah.”12

Not all lessons are learned through stories. A chassidic teaching is often distilled in a chassidic vort13 — a brief and quotable teaching of a Rebbe or chassid of renown, perhaps first given as advice to an individual or as the practical application of a Torah passage. Characteristic of such teachings is their extraordinary ability to identify and resolve a moral, spiritual or psychological dilemma. Above all, they provide guidance for the positive transformation of one’s character traits.

How to Use This Book

Each chassidic story or vort in this book was named according to the spiritual or emotional issue it addresses. In truth, many lessons and teachings can be derived from one story; any attempt to capture its essence and depth in one word is limiting at best. To derive the maximum benefit from a chassidic teaching, the reader must contemplate its details, engage in inner work to find where he and the story resonate, and discover how the resultant insight can enhance and transform his life.

In other words, if Chassidus is to be effective as a spiritual remedy, hisbonenus is necessary. Hisbonenus is literally translated as meditation, but it is more than that. Hisbonenus is the process of focusing one’s mind on an intellectual concept for a long period of time — contemplating, concentrating, musing, applying — until an insight or revelation is born. Thus, it is not a “quick fix” or easy task. Quick and easy answers are more a product of today’s “instant gratification” generation. They may satisfy momentarily, but rarely penetrate a person’s whole being. The first stage of hisbonenus is stimulation of the mind. With increased concentration, the enlightenment that is awakened then trickles down into the heart and arouses an emotive response — such as a love of G‑d or a love of one’s fellow Jew — that will ultimately spark an actual change in one’s attitudes and daily conduct. It is this application of Chassidus that is so effective in refining and healing the person in his totality.

To put it candidly, to benefit from a chassidic story or vort you must work. Most stories will undoubtedly evoke questions, or even confusion: “What’s the point?” “What did he mean by that?” “What’s going on here?” But it is precisely in the contemplation of the answers that the transformation takes place. Someone else’s explanations may lend you temporary intellectual closure, but without your own hisbonenus, the opportunity for reaping the reward of lasting change is lost.

If you are feeling confusion or emotional discomfort in some area of your life, browse through the Table of Contents until you find a topic that jumps out at you. Turn to that story or vort and read it slowly a few times. Contemplate the details and live with them for a day, a week (sometimes a lifetime). Don’t skip over phrases you don’t understand; ponder them until you feel you’ve grasped their meaning. Take a notebook and jot down some personal responses to the story, or write freely on whatever thoughts emerge from your subconscious. Note the connections between the passage and your situation. How has the story or the advice helped you understand or rethink your emotional state? How can its lesson heal your dilemma?

Of course you can also just read through the book to gain a broad awareness of chassidic responses to various life issues.

Farbrengen and Mashpia:
A Model for Group and Individual Guidance

You may have done hisbonenus and all the above exercises, but some allusions in the story may still be too obscure or cryptic to figure out on your own. Or you may be in denial about some untoward aspect of your character and will not allow yourself to resonate with the story or derive benefit from it. In the latter case, it is helpful to find others to act as a mirror, to provide an unthreatening and loving nudge into areas of your psyche you have been reluctant or too afraid to enter.

In the chassidic lifestyle there is a variety of established methods for obtaining help and support for one’s personal growth. One is the chassidic farbrengen, a gathering of like-minded individuals who have come together to share their thoughts and struggles in life and gain inspiration from one another in a setting of friendship, spontaneity, and nonjudgmental criticism. Another is the kind of farbrengen that is led by a mashpia. This spiritual mentor is a chassid who is well-soaked in chassidic teachings and chassidic lore,and who has been seasoned and sensitized by his own self-critical responses to life’s challenges.

Whether those present at a farbrengen participate by speaking or by listening, their common goal is to refine their own conduct and to improve their spiritual health. Focus is often given to the importance of designating fixed times for Torah study and applying its principles to self-improvement. At unscheduled interludes, the group allows the singing of a meditative chassidic melody to express the inexpressible yearnings of the soul.

But the heart of a chassidic farbrengen is the story. In this warm setting, the analysis of the story is no mere intellectual exercise. The group leader evaluates the needs and level of the participants and judiciously selects and interprets various chassidic stories to evoke self-revelation and self-correction in the listeners. Through the ensuing discussion and personal interaction,participants of a farbrengen are more willing to relax their grip on the protective armor that keeps them safe but perpetually stuck. How such a gathering can penetrate even a heart of stone!

Another — and indispensable — tool for personal growth is one-on-one interaction with a mashpia who is able to objectively evaluate an individual’s progress in his overall service of G‑d.14 When the kind of mashpia described above is told of a particular problem or behavior flaw, he can help draft an individual strategy for self-awareness and self-examination. Guidance is given with the utmost delicacy, and a story is often used to illustrate how to rectify the particular flaw that needs correction. The impersonal nature of the story allows the mekabel (lit., “the recipient”) to assimilate the message without feeling defensive or threatened by a more direct approach.

The importance of recognizing and admitting one’s spiritual weaknesses is illustrated by a passage from a book of teachings compiled by the Rebbe.15

The early sages ... determined that the healing of the soul is like the healing of the body:16

[In both cases,] it is first critical to identify the location of the illness, whether it is caused by the crassness, grossness and corruption of one’s physical body or by a failing in his soul-powers — the person being inclined to undesirable traits like arrogance or falsehood and the like. Or, the source of the malady may be habit — inadequate upbringing or unwholesome environment having brought on bad habits.

Without ascertaining the specific site of the illness and the cause of infection, it is impossible to embark on a cure. One can only prescribe an [overall program of] proper conduct in all matters, [i.e.,] what to do and what to avoid: to “do good” in terms of observing mitzvos, designating times for Torah-study, and acquiring good character traits; and also to “turn away from evil.”

Most urgent of all, however, is that the patient make himself aware of two things: a) to know that he is ill and desire most fervently to be cured of his malady; and b) to know that he can be cured, with the hope and absolute trust that, with G‑d’s help, he will indeed be cured of his sickness.

If one seeks to clear his heart of unwanted burdens and struggles — not by escaping them but by working through them — he will discuss them with a mashpia who can create an environment of empathy in which problems can be aired and counsel can be offered. Indeed, opening up to another will enable one to derive the fullest benefit from the stories and teachings presented in this book.