No Hangover

Friday, 28 October, 2022 - 4:29 pm

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,


When someone feels unneeded and irrelevant, it is tragic.

One of the most heartrending stories I heard this month came from the streets of Patong Beach in Phuket.

The rabbi was walking down the street with his lulav and etrog. Two young men called out in English ‘hi rabbi’. He went over to them. They didn’t ‘look’ particularly Jewish. But when they started speaking Yiddish they identified as having grown up in the Williamsburg Chasidic community. They had been raised in the Chassidic tradition and rejected that way of life. Now there were traveling through Thailand and partying. The Shliach asked them to make a blessing for Sukkot. It took a bit of coaxing, but they agreed. After making the blessings (in which they were proficient) they thanked the rabbi and asked him to explain the meaning behind the mitzvah.

The rabbi explained.

These four species are noticeably different from one another. The esrog has both a pleasant taste and a pleasant fragrance. The fruit of the tree from which the lulav is taken, the date, has a pleasant taste, but no fragrance. The myrtle has a pleasant fragrance but no taste, and the willow has neither fragrance nor pleasant taste.

Each of the four species represents a different type of individual. The esrog represents a person who studies Torah and fulfills the mitzvos, the lulav represents one who studies Torah but does not perform mitzvos, the myrtle represents one who fulfills mitzvos but does not study Torah, and the willow represents a Jew who neither studies Torah nor observes mitzvos.

The mitzvah of the lulav and esrog demonstrates how even the esrog, the species which symbolizes both the virtues of Torah study and observance of the mitzvos, cannot be used for the mitzvah on Sukkos unless it is taken in hand and held together with the humble willow. By the same token, no matter how much we develop ourselves as individuals, we cannot reach our true potential without the help of others. The unity of our people is an indispensable ingredient in the growth and progress of every individual.

The young men were incredulous. They said, ‘we have never heard anything like this before’.

In our community, we grew up feeling that there is no room for a Jew who is a ‘willow’. We, rebellious youth, who have neither Torah study nor Mitzvah observance – willows -, feel totally unneeded by our community. To hear this message emanating from the lulav and etrog is inspirational’.

I cry inwardly when I retell this story.

How tragic that these young people never got to feel how needed and relevant they truly are to the community at large. Notwithstanding their level of Torah knowledge or depth of commitment to Mitzvah observance.

Why people feel the way that they feel is not always to be blamed on the parents and upbringing. Different personalities absorb and reframe things in various ways.

It is quite natural for parents to have expectations of kids.

Most kids take it the right way.

I am sure these too rambunctious young men have many siblings who are excitedly continuing in the traditional path of their parents.

But some children clearly don’t see it in the way it was intended by their (for the most part) well-intentioned parents.

And we need to be sensitive to this and validate it. For it is real. Not to be waved away or belittled. Rather we need to try and guide our youth to hear the narrative of hope and empowerment that Judaism provides us with.

Let us take a stroll through the early stories of the Torah.

(I am going to use some poetic license and superimpose contemporary psychological issues into the eternal teachings of the Torah. If it serves to move us to an enhanced relationship with the Almighty and his Torah and Mitzvah’s it is allowed).

Adam was created as the only human on earth.

G-d communicated with him directly. Told him the ‘house rules’.

The weight of the world rested on his shoulders.

No one to blame. No crowd to hide in. Not even one other person to share with.

A very short time later he was to be joined by his wife Chava (Eve).

Life seemed like it would be blissful.

And it was. Till shortly afterwards they jointly erred.

The aftershocks are still shaking our world.

Adam tries to blame Chava. Chava tries to blame the snake.

Hashem adjusts the world to be a world that is not paradise. The world becomes a place where mistakes are made. The Divinely provided way forward is to own up to your malfunction and change your errant way. Teshuva. It is a world where things are broken. Humankind is charged with trying their very best to fix it.

The birth of children to Adam and Chava and proliferation of man on earth lead to its own set of challenges.

Eventually, some 1565 years into the world’s history, as humankind degenerated into atrociously evil behavior, Hashem said, ‘enough is enough’ and brought the Flood to wipe out the worlds inhabitants, humans and animals. Only eight humans were to be saved. Noach, Mrs. Noach, their three sons and daughters-in-law rode out the fatal Flood in a specially constructed Ark. Together with representatives of all animal, fowl and reptile species (the fish were fine staying in the flood waters) the future of the world was all contained in that one ark.

Then it was time to emerge from the ark.

Noach planted a vineyard.

He made wine. Got drunk. It was an unpleasant event.

I want to meditate on what we can learn from this.

Let’s pretend we are therapists in the year 2022.

A young handsome adult comes strutting in full of self-confidence.

Self-esteem galore.

Feeling super relevant. As if the world is not worth being created without him there.

Except that he seems a drop to sure of himself. Upon listening more closely, we hear him saying ‘I am the epicenter of the universe and therefore I am entitled to anything I want’. It is not just self-esteem that he has, which would keep him serious and grounded with a sense of responsibility, rather it has degenerated into unproductive pride.

When confronted with doing something wrong, he defends himself by using the blame mechanism. He says, ‘I did something wrong only because I am a victim of someone else’s negative influence’. Parents, school, peers or any of the other myriad things that he chooses to blame.

Following him comes another client. A different kind of young adult. Not brimming with confidence but on the contrary, he comes in dragging his feet, clearly unmotivated. He seems overwhelmed. His complaint is that since he was a little kid, he has always felt that here are unreasonable expectations placed upon him. He felt that if he didn’t live up to the dreams that his parents had for him, he wouldn’t be accepted or loved. He doesn’t want to be the center of the universe. He just wants to just be ‘one of the boys’ and not have this great responsibility placed on his shoulder.

He prefers the oblivion of quasi-irrelevance.

Meet Adam and Noach.

Adam knew that he was the center of the world. The mission of humanity rested firmly on him. He was okay with that. It’s just that he was a bit too sure of himself and therein lay the potential for his downfall.

Noach, on the other hand had come from a world where people looked at him as an irrelevant old man. Serving a G-d that no one else had time for. Counterintuitively, it seemed that Noach was fine with that position. It was once the world was destroyed, leaving only him, that he felt the crushing burden of having the full responsibility of the world on him. And that seemed overwhelming.

He looked for some respite. Something to take his mind off the huge responsibility. His ‘drug of choice’ upon exiting the ark was alcohol.

I know I am oversimplifying. There is a point I want to make. Regarding ourselves. Our kids.

Do we want our kids to feel relevant to the point of feeling supremely entitled?

Or do we want them to feel how much is expected of them to the point of being overwhelmed?

Of course, we should search for the perfect balance.

Mr. Therapist, what do you say?

How shall I try to raise my child with balance.

With healthy self-esteem that doesn’t cross the border into entitlement.

How do I empower my child to recognize that the world needs his gift, without making the task seem overwhelming and risking

If I was the therapist I would say.

Meet Avraham who is born at the end of this week’s parsha of Noach.

A child born into challenging circumstances.

His father was an idol merchant.

He had every reason to blame his upbringing and to feel like a victim. The set of circumstances he was born to doomed him to a life of dedication to false g-d’s.

But Avraham doesn’t hang around and say ‘pity me’. From the tender age of three, he searches for the truth. After discovering the truth of the Almighty he focuses not on himself and how he feels, rather he says ‘here I am and ready’ to do your bidding G-d.

G-d takes him up on his offer and gives him ten challenges to prove his faith.

His reaction is instructive to us all.

If in his youth, Avraham teaches us not act like ‘victims’ as Avraham doesn’t run away or try to blame someone else, in this next stage when he is challenged, he teaches us how to rise to that occasion. He doesn’t cry that he is overwhelmed and being asked to do too much. He doesn’t look for a way to oblivion, rather he follows G-d’s instruction to ‘Lecha Leacha’ ‘Go’, ‘Journey’ to the land that I will show you.

He says to G-d, ‘here I am and ready’ to do what is needed.

Avraham becomes the first ‘Jew’.

Here is an important concept to absorb.

Judaism is not a religion of ‘feelings’.

Judaism is an authentic acceptance and undertaking to do what G-d has instructed.

It’s not easy.

I think we all have challenging days.

Although many think that rabbi’s never have challenging days... some days I wake up and consider surrendering to the path of feeling like a victim of circumstance. If only this and that were different….

Other days I am tempted to feel like I don’t want this huge responsibility of ‘doing the right thing’. Hey, let me get ‘distracted’ and have someone else be the ‘responsible adult’.

And then I remember (or I am reminded, thank G-d I am married 😊 ) that I have the great blessing of being a student and emissary of the modern day Avraham, the Rebbe.

There was no greater embodiment of a balanced and wholesome approach to life than the Rebbe.

Click here for a collection of the Rebbe’s letters entitled Healthy in Body Mind and Spirit.

 Torah is a true guide for life—“the Torah of truth, the Torah of life”—the Rebbe pleaded with parents, educators and legislators to  G‑d within themselves, and therefore possess the ability to overcome obstacles in their path and fulfill their Divine purpose.

“When I read the Rebbe’s letters to people on this topic, I’m struck with how much the Rebbe believed in the person he was talking to,” said Rabbi Yanky Raskin, LMSW, a local rabbi and school therapist in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. “You can see how much the Rebbe had a deep-seated respect for his addressees, talking to them with the rapport of a trusted friend who really knows and believes that you can be the best version of yourself.

“So while to some, it may seem that at times the Rebbe sets the bar very high and demands quite a bit, it’s really a reflection of how much the Rebbe insisted that one is never a victim of their circumstances and truly possesses the inner fortitude to realize their greatest potential. Of course, it may be a process to get there, and perhaps one will need to marshal additional resources to climb up to that bar, but in the Rebbe’s view, it is eminently possible.”

For me there are some quick meditations that help keep me on track.

When faced with a feeling of being overwhelmed I remind myself of the Rebbe’s handwritten ‘one liner’.

Taking action, even a small action, is better than going to sleep. Certainly better than falling into the distraction of a deep slumber.

And I get up and try to make one move in the right direction.

Another cornerstone of my life is what the Rebbe oft repeated that the ‘way you set things up from below’ is the way you will be treated from above. Quoting from the Zohar that if you act happy down here, Hashem will reciprocate your happiness from above. When things aren’t working out, don’t be predictably gloomy. Try to force yourself into being happy.

It works.

I am eternally grateful that G-d bestows upon me undeserved kindness, and shows me miracles, large and small, every single time I make even a small move in the right direction.

My dear friends, this is my actionable item.

I know we are all different.

And I know that some people have challenges that seem insurmountable.

I feel humble before so many who confide in me, who have been placed on a journey that is excruciatingly difficult.

They are giants.

With humility I share the following.

In whatever predicament we may be.

We have two choices. To surrender to the inactivity that too often results from feeling overwhelmed.

Or, let us try not to focus exclusively on how we feel.

Rather let us focus on the one question that really counts.

What does G-d want of me now.

What action can I take now, do further that mission.

And let’s try to do that.

One item.

One mitzvah. One step in the right direction. One positive thought that will push aside the other non-positive thoughts.

And here is the best news.

Ultimately doing the right thing will make you feel better about yourself, far better than you will feel with any indulgence.

Oh, and it won’t bring a hangover with it.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

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