Anxiety disorders are the most common type of psychiatric illness, yet researchers know very little about factors associated with recovery. A growing body of medical evidence indicates that people who are optimistic and trusting, have stronger immune systems and recover more rapidly and fully from major trauma, than those who are skeptical, distrustful and negative.
Painful experiences are natural and normal. They usually leave us with an unconscious fear that they will reoccur. This anxiety weakens our resolve to recover when we face new traumas. Even worse, we hesitate to live and love as fully as we should, so that we suffer loss even if nothing bad ever reoccurs.
Religious insights that derive from powerful spiritual experiences can help us overcome these anxieties by directing our attention to new and different ways of seeing things. People who change their perspective and become more hopeful prior to negative situations may even avoid experiencing them.
The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber asserted more than a half century ago that, “the purpose of all great religions and religious movements is to engender a life of elation and fervor which no (later negative) experience can dampen and stifle.” In this light I offer a sample of Hassidic insights that I believe can inspire everyone during dark dismal days.
For most modern people a saying from such a socially distant source as Ultra-Orthodox Hassidim can provide an unexpected jolt because for many people, Hassidic Jews are noticeable mostly because of their Amish like dress and ultra-orthodox behavior. Yet it is their unique stress on trusting in God and elevating one’s soul through joyful religious activities, that makes them spiritually distinctive. The following stories and sayings give a taste of the inner life of Hassidic Jews.
On the holiday of Simhat Torah the disciples of Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of Hassidism, were at his home dancing and drinking. After several hours the Baal Shem Tov’s wife said she was worried they would drink up all the wine in the cellar and there would be none left for Shabbat.
Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov told her she was correct. Go tell them to stop. She went to the room where they were dancing and saw a ring of blue light around the dancing men. Then she herself went to the cellar and returned with a jug of wine in each hand. Then Rabbi Israel said: “God makes the spiritual physical; humans must make the physical spiritual.”
One of the most important teachings of Hassidic Rabbis was not to worry about the future or sacrifice present joy because you fear it will not last very long. After all, most things people worry about never occur and worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles, it only takes away today’s peace of mind.
As Rabbi Mordecai of Lekhovitz taught, “We must not worry. Only one worry is O.K. We should worry about being (always) worried.”
The Baal Shem Tov was a lover of the common people and a kind soul. Rabbi Shmuel Arieh, who once lived in a village where the Baal Shem Tov had worked as a shohet (slaughter) before his greatness was revealed, related this insight: “I met an 80 year old shohet in that village and I asked him if he had ever met a Jew who had actually met Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov. The shohet (slaughter) answered that he had never met a Jew who had met the Baal Shem Tov, but he had met a Gentile who not only met Rabbi Israel; but also recognized him.
I questioned how a Gentile could possibly recognize a Jewish holy man who had not yet revealed himself even to Jews; and this was the shochet’s answer. “When I was a young man I used to lodge with a Gentile farmer. Whenever I would pour water on a stone to sharpen my slaughtering knife, the farmer’s grandmother, an old lady of 90 or so, would shake her head. I used to think this was due to her old age. One time I sensed she was doing it out of disapproval; so I asked her why do you shake your head while I work?
She answered me, “You do not go about your task in a nice way. That nice young man Israel, before he sharpened his knife on a stone, would wet the stone with his tears.”
The Baal Shem Tov’s great grandson Rabbi Nachman of Breslov added further insights: “The whole world is one long narrow bridge, so it is essential not to make yourself fearful.” So “You are wherever your thoughts are. Make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.”
He also taught: No matter how low you have fallen, it is forbidden to give up hope. Repentance is higher even than Torah [study]. and “Always remember that joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.”
Rabbi Levi Yitzkhak of Berdichev also taught, “A person who fears God loves his own self; but a person who loves God forgets his own self.”
Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh once said: “What a good and bright world this is if we do not lose our hearts, but what a dark world, if we do!” When asked: “Can there be anything worse than losing one’s eye sight?” He replied: “Yes, losing your inner vision!”
Soon after the death of Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin someone asked one of his disciples what was the most important thing to his teacher. The disciple thought and then replied, “Whatever he happened do be doing at the moment.”
Before his death, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol said: “In the next world they will not ask me-Why were you not Moses? They will ask me-Why were you not Zusya?”
Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught, “When people suffer they should not say – That’s bad, that’s bad! Nothing that God imposes on us is bad. But it is all right to say- That’s bitter! For there are some medicines that are made with bitter herbs.”
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov also taught, “Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.” A Hassidic Sage who was near death got up and danced. When they tried to stop him he said, “This is exactly the time to dance.” He then told them a story and concluded, “When they (circumstances) come to you with a very difficult demand, that is exactly the time to dance.” All of our virtues (love, faith, courage, trust, etc) are tested in times of adversity, and that is exactly when we really need to exemplify them.
When Rabbi Hirsh returned from his wife’s funeral he was overheard saying to himself, “Up to now I was able to experience God’s presence here on earth through marriage. Now I shall have to experience God’s presence directly.” Two weeks later he died.
How did Rabbi Hirsh experience God’s presence through marriage? The Jewish mystics taught that the Shekinah- ‘the female presence of God’ rests upon a husband when he makes love to his wife with a sense of reverence, tenderness, adoration and love. The Shabbat adds holiness and chosen-ness to these feelings.
The key attitude is a sense of wonder and gratefulness that his wife is God’s gift, the chosen source of his blessings, and the most wonderful manifestation of God’s presence as it says, “Who can find a capable wife? Her value is far above jewelry. Her husband can trust her completely.” (Proverbs 31:10)
Rabbi Levi Yitzkhak says, “There are two types of marital sex. One type is physical sex as gratification of the husband’s passion, which means that he does not love his wife at all, but loves only himself. The other type is loving his wife because she is (God’s gift) the way by which he fulfills the commands of God, this is true love.” as it says, “A capable wife is her husband’s crown.” (Proverbs 12:4)
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk asked, “Where can you find God? Other sages say that God is everywhere. I say God is wherever a person lets God in.”
Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz sought out the advice of his rebbe, the Seer of Lublin. “Master, show me a way all people can follow in service to God.” “There is no one way,” the Seer replied. For some the way is the way of study, for others the way of prayer, and for still others the way of fasting or eating or good deeds. There is no one way for all, only the right way for each. Choose the way that is right for you and then engage it with all your might.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Chabad was married 60 years; and never had any children. The Talmud says you must divorce your wife if after ten years of marriage you are childless. The Rebbe divorced and remarried his wife in the same night five times. That is what it means to be a Rebbe—to see through the Torah.
Rabbi Michal of Zlotchov once said to his children, “My life was always blessed in that I never needed anything until I had it.”
Rabbi Shelomo of Karlin taught, “What is the worst thing that Satan can accomplish? To make a person forget that he or she is a child of God.”
Finally, a neo Hasidic American Reform Rabbi of our generation, Rami Shapiro teaches,”Aren’t all religions equally true? No, all religions are equally false. The relationship of religion to Truth is like that of a menu to a meal. The menu describes the meal as best it can. It points to something beyond itself. Without the menu we cannot order a meal. But when we mistake the menu for the meal, we do it and ourselves a grave injustice.”