Monday, June 11, 2012

A quick primer on five essential philosophical points.

by Rabbi Eliyahu Yaakov (courtesy of Aish Hatorah)

1.     You are unique.
You might have heard the classic Jewish saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) At first glance, this appears to be a statement of motivation, as if to say, “Get out of bed! Don’t be lazy! If you don’t take care of yourself, no one else is going to do it for you!”

But there is a deeper interpretation. Not only is it a motivational speech, but a statement of essence.

It reflects the uniqueness of our potential. It teaches that there is something special each of us is here in the world to accomplish. There is something each and every one of us can do that no one else can do. This is powerful because it says that you and I have something to do for the world that Moses himself did not achieve.

2.     Live Consciously
Now, if we are each special and unique, then it should come as no surprise that our circumstances are special and unique as well – tailor made to our own particular soul and personal essence. For this reason, the Talmud states that we are to get up in the morning, take a good look in the mirror, and say, “The world was created for me.” This does not mean that if I see someone with a chocolate bar I can take it from him because, after all, “the world was created for me.” What it means is that each of us is to have the perspective that everything that happens to us in our lives – whether it be the parents I had growing up or the person I sat next to on the bus today – is specifically designed for me, based on the nature of my soul and what I am put here in this world to achieve.

Once I know that all that I experience and don’t experience was designed for me, the question is how do I choose to respond under the conditions that I’ve been dealt. In this life, we were not given the choice of the time, place, or economic status we are being born into. We do not get to choose our body size or what we will look like. We were not even given the choice of whether or not to be born. But, as in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, we are put in the world and given a number of options. We make a choice, and that leads to another set of options. We make another choice, and that sets up yet another set of options, and so on.

At the end of our lives, we are the totality of the choices we have made. It is up to us to stay clear on this; to not get down on life and to keep our eyes on the prize.

3.     Acquire Genuine Freedom
Imagine a person who, for his whole life, always made sure to do what came naturally to him. Imagine that after living this life, he passes away and goes up to Hashem, where he is asked, “So, what did you do with your time?”

He proudly answers, “I always did what I felt like doing when I felt like doing it. No matter what it was, whatever came naturally to me, that’s what I did.”
What do you think Hashem’s response to this is? “Uh, I think you belong over there with the donkeys – that’s how they live!”

The Sages teach: “Who is the strong person? The one who conquers his inclinations” (Ethics, 4:1). True freedom is when you are calling all the shots. Being unhindered from fulfilling your every passion may feel good at the time, but it is not true freedom. You are not the master of your domain. You are not in control. You are a slave to your desires.

We often think that freedom means that nothing gets in our way. But that can sometimes lead to a lack of freedom. Furthermore, what purpose would freedom serve if all it meant was that nothing stands in my way? Is there a purpose to a life spent doing what I feel when I feel it? After 70 years of that, what strength of character have I exhibited in the world? Where have I truly stepped up to the plate and applied myself? Has my life not been a chain of events in which I was a puppet being played by desires? Where is the assertion of the “I”?

4.     Live with an Open Mind
In order to get to the “I”, a person must uproot the interfering preconceptions that have been instilled within him through his Nature and his Nurture. When a person has not properly dealt with the multitudes of conditionings and manipulations he has undergone in his life, he has no capacity for the clarity necessary to properly begin the personal journey of life. It is only once we override our preprogramming that we can come to a point of true self-awareness from which to start the journey.

The deeper Jewish sources refer to this stage of personal growth and maturity as making oneself “desert-like.” The Torah was given in the desert because it is a place of nothingness. It is barren and open. Just as the Torah was only given to the Jewish people once they had left the servitude of Egypt for the openness of the desert, so too, it is only once a person has left the servitude of his personal Egypt that can he come to the openness of his personal desert. It is only once a person makes himself desert-like by living with a truly open mind that can he consider any new piece of information or new way of life in a real and transformative way.

5. Personal Responsibility
A few days ago, I was in the car with my wife, Chana, and we drove by someone delivering fruit to a fruit store, when he suddenly dropped a crate of watermelons all over the street. Immediately, he started to look up and down for someone to blame, but there was no one there. Chana quickly observed, “That’s the way we all are – always looking for someone to blame.”

People are often afraid to take on such personal responsibility. They are afraid to make such real choices and take such real strides. Because that means we can fail. And then we have no one to blame but ourselves.

It takes a lot of consciousness and self-awareness to climb out of such habits and programming and to take responsibility for our choices. But when we do, instead of finding a way out of life and avoiding it, a person begins to strive for growth and success and to truly live. The sweetness of personal responsibility is that it removes all blocks set in one’s way due to self-induced fears and insecurities, paving the road to one’s higher potential.

 Rabbi Eliyahu Yaakov’s new book Jewish By Choice: A Kabbalistic Take on Life & Judaism, a clear, accessible, and practical view of Kabbalah and the "whys" of Judaism.

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