Question & Answer With Avakesh - Against The Stream
A Simple Jew asks:
Living in a somewhat insular community, how are you able to ensure that you observe mitzvos and learn Torah lishma, and not just because doing anything else would be swimming against the stream?
This is an interesting question, in itself and because it betrays certain assumptions.
First you assume that swimming against the stream ensures that your mitzva performance is more lishma or of higher quality, whereas I do not think that that is necessary the case. Secondly, you posit observance and Torah study as the ceiling but it is really the floor, the minimum. There is so much more that we can do and that is expected of us than this. Third and most significantly, your question presupposes that an eved Hashem is a “gavra b’guvrin”, a person in a social network and in dialogue with his community standard, which is, I think, a misconception. A sincere eved Hashem lives outside any specific time and place. Rather, he lives in eternity.
I explain by briefly digressing.
There are three stages in the development of any sincere seeker, whether a Baal Teshuvah or FFB, and most of us get stuck someplace along this continuum. Very few are those who continue climbing the ladder that leads to Heaven continuously throughout life.
Let’s define three stages of movement toward God. Most religious people, even in very insular communities live and reside at the first stage, a level in which the only certainty is that there is some higher presence but what it is, or what it does remains vague and unclear. In a certain way, it is an agnostic state. The Divine is perceived at a distance, through clouds of obscurity, and only occasionally, a few times per lifetime, at times of stress or great beauty, does it momentarily come into focus, to quickly recede again. Such people are full of questions, fearful of the Power of this great Being, unsure how they relate to it, how it can be propitiated, controlled, even if it exists at all. In this stage there is no moving beyond one’s environment. There is no swimming against the tide at this point in a person’s development and there is now ay up except by learning from others.
The second stage is of God as a perceptible but different entity, a relationship that can be likened to that of a child and parent. A child knows, trusts and confides in his Father but still sees himself and his interests as distinct from those of his big Friend. Sometimes the child argues with or attempts to bargain with his Father and at other times, he/she may get angry at Him. At this level of development, there is a personal relationship beyond the social one, but it is a relationship like others within one’s experience. On this level, a person is still a part of humanity, defining himself as “one of them”, sharing their desires, preconceptions and predjudices. For such a person, a community helps to establish a ceiling of religiosity. As a social being, such a man is “gavra b’guvrin”, a part of the communal fabric, a man among others. At this time, the communal standard is definitely something that greatly influences and impacts a person, though he can go beyond it. And it is at this level that learning Torah and doing mitzvos lishma is something that must be pursued in spite of others.
The process need not stop here. I am definitely not there yet, but at least I know that it is there and that it exists. The third stage is Heaven on Earth, Divinity that fills all and surrounds all. More importantly, it is a palpable, sensed Presence. When immersed in this level, the Eved Hashem does not seek God outside for he is within him and one with him. God is as close as man’s own skin. There are no distinctions between giver and receiver at this point but there is an absolute certainty of His closeness. One can no more betray Hashem than betray himself. Men are no longer a reference standard; one does not measure by their standards or calculate by their measurements. A man of this rank, and few are the men of distinction, may walk, in the words of Chazon Ish, among people, but in reality he resides with angels. He is beyond anger at others, beyond frustrations and disappointments, filled with love and joy at the encounter with spirituality everywhere in everyone.
R. Yosel Yozef of Novarodok said: “ One should never think of others, except in as much as to benefit them”. It is this unconcern for the common standard that helps convert it into the floor of religious achievement and not the ceiling.
I am not suggesting that it does not matter whether one lives in a religiously strong or weak neighborhood. No, the surroundings impact on even the most passionate Eved Hashem, and they certainly influence his family and children.
You ask: “How do you keep your Mitzvos lishma?” Yes, I am fortunate to live among people of high standards surrounded by many teachers, always at wonder at the elevated stature of my fellow Yidden. I am grateful that I live among men of distinction, people of high standards and good hearts for it is easier to reach higher when you stand on a higher ground. However, the struggle that I must wage is against myself, not against others, and the field of battle is within the heart and not in the neighborhood. This is why this well-intentioned question is misconstrued. Learning Torah and doing mitzvos lishma is only the beginning. If the local standard helps, wonderful! However, there is much more to do, much more to accomplish, for inwardness has many, many gradations and it never, never ends.