Psychology and Chabad Chassidism

In seeking to achieve a healthy mental life, classical psychology’s central questions are “What’s the problem, and what caused it?” In Freudian psychoanalysis, the answer is found in the early life of the subject, particularly in relation to his or her parents.

Other schools of psychology change the focus and instead ask, “What’s the solution?” or “How do I fulfill my potential?”

Chassidic philosophy’s central question is “What’s my purpose?”1

The Rebbe Rayatz (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, 1880–1950) once related that he heard from his father, the Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, 1860–1920), that our “what for,” our purpose, is the very soul of our existence.2 Until we discover what our unique contribution to the world is meant to be, we are merely subsisting, not really living, and certainly not living purposefully.

The following well-known story, related by the Rebbe Rayatz, illustrates the chassidic emphasis on finding one’s purpose:

In 1798, the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745–1812) was arrested by the czarist regime on trumped-up charges of subversion. One of the government officials, who was proficient in Tanach and well-versed in Jewish matters, asked the Alter Rebbe a number of questions, among them the meaning of the verse “G‑d called out to Adam saying, ‘Ayekah—where are you?’”3

“After all,” the minister asked, “didn’t G‑d know where Adam was?” When the Alter Rebbe cited Rashi’s explanation, that G‑d was merely using the question to initiate further conversation with Adam, the official replied, “What Rashi says, I already know. I want to hear what you say about this.” To which the Alter Rebbe responded, “When a person reaches such-and-such an age (citing the official’s actual age), the Almighty asks him, ‘Where are you? Do you know the reason for which you were placed in this world, what it is that you have to accomplish, and what you have already accomplished?”4

There is also a lesser-known story about one of the disciples of the Alter Rebbe who had been a very wealthy man, and who shared his wealth generously, but had suddenly lost everything and was now deep in debt. He traveled to the Alter Rebbe and poured out his bitter heart.

The Alter Rebbe heard him out and then lifted his head, saying in a singsong (as was his holy custom), “You fully articulated everything that you need. But about what you are needed for, you have said nothing!”5

Soul Powers and Purpose

So in order to truly express our soul, which is a “part of G‑d Above,”6 we must understand “what we are needed for.” The problem is, of course, that we don’t come with individualized instruction manuals describing the purpose of our lives.

It is a basic tenet of chassidic thought (and indeed of Jewish thought in general7) that G‑d desired to create this lowest world so that we can make it into a dwelling place fit for the King—a dirah be-tachtonim—as explained in Tanya and in numerous chassidic discourses. This gives us the general direction we should be heading in, but not the specific role each individual is given in achieving this goal.

However, the Torah declares explicitly that G‑d gives us the power to accomplish great things,8 and our sages add that “the Holy One, blessed be He, does not make unreasonable demands on His creatures.”9 In other words, He doesn’t demand things from us that He has not equipped us to fulfill.

It follows that by examining the strengths and talents with which we are uniquely endowed, we can gain some insight into what it is that we were put here to accomplish. Of course, the soul is endowed with all the soul powers discussed in Kabbalah and Chassidism; nevertheless, on the individual level, some qualities are more dominant than others. For example, the quality of chesed (kindness) dominated in Abraham, and the quality of gevurah (severity) in Isaac, although they both had the opposite quality as well, albeit in a less dominant manner.

It is also true that some strengths and talents may be latent, and will become revealed only as we develop, or when we—through hashgachah pratit, divine providence—face a challenge that requires us to draw that strength or talent up from the hidden recesses of our soul. Furthermore, it is also true that our talents and strengths can change and develop over time. We are not born with immutable talents and abilities. We can always acquire new ones, and further develop the ones we have.

Nevertheless, some of our strengths and talents certainly are revealed and can readily be identified by others as well. It makes sense to say that these are the ones on which we ought to focus initially in order to begin to clarify our life’s mission, since they are the ones that are (currently) dominant in us.

The mission of Betzalel, for example, was clearly to be the chief builder of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), as he and his assistants were endowed with the wisdom and talents needed for that purpose:

G‑d spoke to Moshe saying, “See, I have called out by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah. I filled him with G‑dly spirit, with wisdom, insight and knowledge, and with every skill [needed] to weave designs, to work with gold, silver and copper, stonecutting and woodcarving—to perform every craft. And I have assigned Aholiav to be his assistant . . . and I have endowed the heart of every wise-hearted person with wisdom, so that they shall make all I have commanded you . . .”10

Of course, one could also say that our purpose lies in uncovering and correcting our deficiencies. But the chassidic approach is to focus more on developing and utilizing our strengths than on battling our inadequacies, to work with the positive and the uplifting, rather than the negative and the emotionally draining. As the Tzemach Tzedek (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, 1789–1866) said, quoting the Talmud, “We are day workers”11—we work on increasing the light (day), rather than trying to drive out the darkness.12

This does not mean that the negative qualities and desires that we all have are entirely useless. On the contrary, as the Rebbe writes in HaYom Yom:

Every soul has its particular avodah (service), in the area of intellect and emotions, in accordance with that soul’s nature and character. It is written:13 “From my foes have You given me wisdom”14—from the evil tendencies one detects in his natural traits, he can become wise and know how to handle the correction of these traits, and how to subordinate his powers in the service of G‑d.15

Nevertheless, the manner with which we deal with the negative traits ought to be as that of a “day worker,” as described above, and as the Alter Rebbe writes:

. . . So it is in the conquest of one’s evil nature: it is impossible to conquer it with laziness and heaviness, which originate in sadness and in a heart that is dulled like a stone, but rather with alacrity, which derives from joy and from a heart that is free and cleansed from any trace of worry and sadness in the world.16

So through utilizing our G‑d-given soul powers, and through subordinating our negative traits, we can become aligned with our purpose. Not doing so can lead to feelings of frustration, discouragement and discontent. And as the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, writes in a letter, “If a person does not feel his purpose, he does not use his G‑d-given potential. This is not merely a personal loss and failing. Rather, it affects the fortunes of the entire world.” 17

Through becoming more in sync with what our souls were brought into this world to accomplish, we can begin to heal ourselves and the entire world.