Tag Archives: despair

The Elusive, Invisible, Tzaddik

The tzadik is one with G-d.

We recognize him because within each of us is also a tzadik who is one with G-d.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Tzaddik”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

This is amazingly difficult for me to get my brain around, mostly because I can’t imagine it applying to me, not even a little. But there are only a few sentences here to try and understand Rabbi Freeman’s point. What about how others reacted to this blog post?

*Posted June 24, 2012 by Yaakov Branfman, Jerusalem, Israel
So, in other words, when he goes against the Tzaddik, he’s really going against that part in himself who is a Tzaddik. And, not even talking about going against, but when he simply doesn’t value the Tzaddik, he’s not valuing that part of himself.
When he values a “regular” person, he’s valuing that part in himself, and when not valuing that person, he’s not seeing the good parts in himself.

*Posted Aug 22, 2009 by Anonymous, New York, NY
Yosef is the only one in the Torah was called HaTzaddik. Yet we find that Yosef made mistakes, and struggled, yet overcame his inclination, but is not that he had _NO_ such impulses.

By the way this is a phenomenal pearl of wisdom by written by Tzvi Freeman… If we look at people, and look for the Tzaddik within them… we can _PULL_ the Tzaddik to the surface.

*Posted Aug 9, 2009 by mark alcock, Durban, SA
“Tzaddik, The: A wholly righteous person. In the context of Chabad literature, one who has conquered his animal impulses and is filled entirely with love and reverence for G-d.” One is either righteous or not, not sometimes without sin.

*Posted Aug 9, 2009 by Michal
When I look at it this way,
then even I am a Tzaddik.
Most of the time.
Unfortunately not always !!!

I think what Rabbi Freeman (or the Rebbe) is trying to say is that we should look for the best in other people and the best in ourselves. There is supposed to be some spark of wonder, divinity, and even perfection within each human being and, if we can try to relate to that part of another person rather than the other parts that are imperfect, then maybe they will aspire to be what we see in them, rather than what the rest of the world sees.

That has profound implications. If you know someone who is perpetually sad or angry or cynical or sarcastic, you tend to relate to them by their primary presentation. We all tend to believe that a person is the way we see them and the way they act. But what if we choose to look at and to treat each person as if they were a tzaddik, even if that is the farthest thing from who they actually appear to be?

No, it wouldn’t suddenly change them. Chances are, they’d think you were faking it when you treated them with respect, honor, and deference (how else should you treat someone who is one with God?). Chances are they’d think you were lying. But what if you always treated the other person with respect, honor, and deference, even though their behavior didn’t warrant such treatment and even though everything inside of you tells you that they don’t deserve it?

At the very least, you’d confuse the other person. At the very most, they might, just might be able to see something of a tzaddik in themselves and start behaving differently.

OK, it’s a long shot and most of the time, it wouldn’t work, but how could it hurt? And what if their life is somehow a message to us?

So even if one is your enemy, and justifiably so; even if his moral and spiritual downfall is one of his own making – it could have happened without your having been made aware of it. That you have witnessed it has nothing to do with him: it is a message to you, enjoining you to deal with a similar negative element – be it in subtlest of forms – within yourself.

-Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement

What if someone where to treat you like a tzaddik? How would you react?

Depends.

If you go around thinking you’re pretty cool stuff, you might think that it’s only what you deserve and you’d let it go to your head. That would be too bad, because if you go around all the time thinking you’re pretty cool stuff, chances are, you really aren’t. Chances are, things like humility, honoring God, and loving your neighbor as yourself might have escaped you. Yet none of these things would escape a tzaddik. If even one other person started treating you like a tzaddik and kept treating you that way, do you think those things that had escaped you before would begin to become noticeable?

And what if you look and look but you don’t see the tzaddik in yourself? What if you see a total screw up who, no matter how hard he tries, just can’t stop making mistakes, losing track of important details, and whose past is a ghost attached around his neck with heavy, iron chains, haunting not only his every waking moment but every minute of his dreams? And what if no one ever treated you like a tzaddik, not that you’d ever expect such a thing?

Can you look for and find the tzaddik in yourself or is there only your past, your mistakes, and how everyone else sees you in exactly the same way you see yourself?

Don’t be “this”. Don’t let them define you. If you catch yourself fitting into a definition, contradict it. Never travel a single road.

Be forever walking through the splitting of the sea.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Being Paradox”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

If there is even a tiny spark of the tzaddik in you, then not only can God see it but He placed it there. When a person can see only his mistakes, he also believes that’s only what God sees. It’s not that God can’t see past our flaws, but when we are drowning in our own despair, it’s impossible for us to believe God can see in us what we can’t see. It’s impossible for us to believe that there is something more in us than our own self-definition or the way others see our behavior and choose to define us. It’s impossible for us to think that we can escape the definition and become the paradox. Rabbi Freeman’s commentary on the above statement tells us that only God is truly the paradox:

If we wish to touch G-d Himself, we cannot find Him in any defined, bounded form. He is entirely unbounded, free of any definition. and that can only be discovered in utter paradox.

That is why everything a Jew does according to Torah, is bound up with paradox–because it is divine.

A Jew enters that identity when He is bound up in the Torah. A Christian would have to be bound up in Christ, the living Torah, to transcend the definition as Rabbi Freeman suggests, and to find the tzaddik within.

It would be wonderful to suspend the definition and to find the tzaddik who is completely concealed inside of me. But most days, there’s just who I see when I look in the mirror, and who the world sees when it looks at me, and who knows what God sees? Some days are better, and some days are worse, and some days all there is to see in me is a rasha. Have you even seen the tzaddik in you, let alone met him or her? If so, what is it like?

One of the Alter Rebbe’s great and very close chassidim had yechidus, in the course of which the Rebbe inquired after his situation. The chassid complained bitterly that his financial situation had utterly deteriorated. The Rebbe responded: You are needed to illuminate your environment with Torah and avoda of the heart – (davening). Livelihood and what you need – that, G-d must provide for you. You do what you must, and G-d will do what He must.

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, Tamuz 5, 5703
Compiled and arranged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 5703 (1943)
from the talks and letters of the sixth Chabad Rebbe
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

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Underlying Reality

At the core of all our thoughts and beliefs lies the conviction that the underlying reality is wholly good. That evil lies only at the surface, a thin film of distortion soon to be washed away by the waves.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Essential Good”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

That hardly seems likely. Given the record of wars, crime, and rampant injustice that is written all over human history, it’s extremely difficult to reconcile all of that with the statement, “reality is wholly good.” For me, it’s as difficult as believing the following to be true:

Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.

-Anne Frank

I still experience astonishment when imagining how a young Jew in the middle of the Holocaust could pen such a statement. Didn’t the Nazis teach her that humanity is essentially evil?

Of course religious Jews and Christians see the nature of humanity as fundamentally different. Jews see our nature as basically good but influenced by an inclination for evil while Christians see that the fall of Adam resulted in the nature of human beings becoming wholly evil and irredeemable without Jesus Christ. Jews believe people have an active part in working toward repairing themselves and their damaged world while Christians believe we are totally helpless and only through Christ is there any hope at all.

I believe Jesus was serious when he said:

Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” –Luke 18:8 (ESV)

Our modern religious world isn’t in any better shape than the secular world surrounding us. We are subject to the same pressures, frailties, passions, temptations, and lusts as the rest of humanity. Christians like to believe we are somehow immune from those forces thanks to the grace of Jesus Christ but scandal upon scandal in the church that has made the headlines over the past several decades shows us otherwise. Dear Christian, if God were to open your heart and show every dirty sin you’ve ever committed in living color on national television, would the reputation of God (already rather shaky in a progressive secular politically correct society) topple completely in the eyes of the common person?

Many religious and inspirational pundits, including Rabbi Freeman have said in one way or another that, “you are what you think,” but what you think won’t affect a morally and ethically corrupt reality.

To know that this world is not some wild jungle where whoever is stronger or richer or smarter can abuse and destroy without regard for those beneath them — this is not a matter of religion or faith, particular to one people or group of believers. This is the underlying reality — that this world has a Master, and it is not any of us.

A peaceful society can only endure when it is built upon that which is real.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Getting Real”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

There are times when I can see the attraction of retreats and monasteries; of withdrawing into a cloistered and sheltered environment isolated from the hideousness of the world around us. In truth though, what I seek most when I have such thoughts, is to be isolated from the corruption within myself. At least if I say or do something that is considered unacceptable to the irreligious and progressive world, in an isolated sanctuary, there are a limited number of people who will be impacted and hopefully, I will be my only victim.

Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to go and no place to hide, even from myself, and between the options of seeking hope and expecting total, catastrophic failure in my life, I can only sit and wait to see which one will endure and which one will perish. Anne Frank had hope and she died anyway. The Nazis were ultimately defeated and the death camps turned into testaments warning the next generation against evil, but antisemitism, Jew hatred, and the desire among almost all the nations of the world (and all the major news agencies) to exterminate every living Israeli (Jewish) man, woman, and infant are still unashamedly rampant.

In spite of all this, Rabbi Freeman still has the nerve (I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek right now) to post a series of articles called meditations on happiness. Even if an individual can somehow achieve a state of happiness or (amazingly) joy, the world should just surround that person with its very nature and crush that spirit to a bloody death, as a serpent might crush the eggs of a swan. But then Rabbi Freeman also said this:

It’s not that Abraham and Moses gave the world the ideas of morality and value of life. These ideas were known to Adam and to Noah — only that with time, humankind had mostly forgotten them.

What these giants brought to the world was a greater idea: That the values essential to humanity’s survival can only endure when they are seen as an outcome of monotheism. They must be tied to an underlying reality, and that reality is the knowledge of a Oneness that brings us into being.

One of my favorite episodes of the TV series M*A*S*H (1972-1983) is called Dear Sigmund. Psychiatrist Sydney Freedman (played by Allan Arbus) is undergoing what you might call a “crisis of faith,” but in his case, it isn’t faith in God but rather, faith in his abilities as a psychiatrist. One of his patients has committed suicide, so he “retreats” to the 4077 and amid the insanity typical among people like Hawkeye, BJ, and Klinger, he starts writing a letter to the founder of modern psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. This doesn’t go unnoticed:

Capt. B.J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell): We couldn’t help but notice that you came for the poker game and stayed two weeks.
Maj. Sidney Freedman: Well, I just wanted a little vacation.
Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda): Sydney, Venice is a vacation. The Swiss Alps is a vacation. This is a fungus convention in Atlantic City.

At one point in his letter to Freud (who at that point in history, was already deceased), Sydney crystallizes the alternative to rage or despair in the face of hopelessness:

Anger turned inwards is depression. Anger turned sideways… is Hawkeye.

I suppose that was the whole point of the eleven year run of the M*A*S*H series. In the face of something has horrible and crazy as war, it is still possible to survive it and find a third alternative besides depression and anger…controlled insanity.

Well, to be fair, a wacky sense of humor.

I used to believe that the last coping mechanism that would fail me when all others went the way of the Dodo bird would be humor, but that too becomes buried along with everything else when the weight of both the world and my personality descend upon me. But then neither Hawkeye or Sydney relied on anything like faith in God (which was already unpopular in 1976 when the “Dear Sigmund” episode first aired).

At the end of the episode, Sydney’s “vacation” at M*A*S*H enabled him to realize that a small bud of hope had begun to grow within him and he felt the need to nurture it. God doesn’t provide vacations for the “tired soul” so all I have to hope for is that He’ll eventually show a small bit of mercy.

It’s not like life is so bad. Compared to most folks, I’ve got it pretty good. It’s just that I can see past the facade into the inner workings of the machine, and I realize that the spinning of its cogs and sprockets and all the stuff we tend to believe makes life meaningful are just the mechanism operating in futility, like some obscene Rube Goldberg machine that looks wonderful but performs absolutely no useful function.

So I’m sitting at a bus stop at the intersection of Hope and Futility waiting to see which bus will show up first…and which one I’ll take for a ride.

I wonder what would happen if I wrote a letter called, “Dear God?”

Why Does God Make Us Laugh?

OK, the better way to ask that question is, “why did God give us the ability to laugh?” I read a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip this morning (see below) and was struck by the absolute profound nature of the transaction between the two main characters. While Calvin remarks that it seems odd evolution should give us the ability to laugh at absurdity, my perspective allows me to attribute our ability to laugh to God.

Returning to Calvin’s’ question, why do we a laugh at the absurd? Why would God make us so that we would have such a strange physiological response to nonsense and further, why do we seem to enjoy it? It’s like watching an old Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy short comedy film. I still love them, even though in many ways, they are hopelessly archaic…and incredibly silly. They make me laugh.

But while Calvin muses about the survival benefit of laughter in an evolutionary scheme of things, I ask the question of an intelligent and purposeful God. Why do we laugh at the absurdities of life? Directing the question to God makes Hobbes’ answer all the more frightening to me:

I suppose if we couldn’t laugh at things that don’t make sense, we couldn’t react to a lot of life.

That implies a couple of things. That a lot of what happens to us is nonsensical, absurd, or just plain crazy. And that if we couldn’t laugh at the strangeness of life, we wouldn’t have any other way of responding to it.

I’m not saying that life is endlessly funny. In many ways, life is almost endlessly tragic. Just turn on the local TV news or watch CNN for an hour and you’ll see what I mean. But then again, Calvin and Hobbes aren’t talking about humor, they’re talking about the strange, the bizarre, and probably the tragic and the hopeless. Not that we should laugh at the trouble and hardship of others, but often the only thing we can do when the bizarre little twists and turns of laugh overwhelm us and threaten to engulf us is to laugh.

My friend Joe Hendricks is a perfect example of what I mean. As he and his wife Heidi struggle in their continual wrestling match with cancer, the tool they most often use to combat despair and depression is humor. I’m not sure I’d find that many laughs if I were in their shoes (and I’m sure Heidi’s shoes wouldn’t even come close to fitting, anyway), but it works for them. Maybe it works for us to as we watch them…as I watch them, and feel utterly powerless to do anything to help them.

Is that why God gave us the ability to laugh? So we could also endure our own hideous hardships and the heartbreaking experiences of others without completely falling apart?

I’ve heard it said on many occasions that it’s faith that gets us through the tough times but I wonder if it’s really laughter? I wonder, when push comes to shove, if prayer is the most important way we can respond when faced with the horrible and insane events of our world?

How ironic if the sole purpose of having a sense of humor is to keep us from crying all the time when we’re alone and when we’re hurt and when we’re scared.

And when life makes absolutely no sense at all and we feel completely out of control.