Monday, July 07, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Tanchum Burton - Overstretching Yourself

A Simple Jew asks:

Reb Nosson of Breslov taught,

"All the passion and yearning in your heart is to be holy, disciplined, and detached from the vanities of the world in order to be worthy of the radiant light which is dawning in you. And certainly it would be a great thing to achieve such a level. But the yetzer hara is resentful and wants to attack you. Don't let yourself fall because of this. 'Be not overly righteous and do not commit great evil.' You can come to great harm, G-d forbid, if you overstretch yourself when you are trying to reach holiness, and as a result you fall."

In what ways can a person overstretch themselves and come to harm in their attempt to reach holiness?

Rabbi Tanchum Burton answers:

Rebbe Nachman refers often to the verse in Koheles, "these and these G-d made", which is generally understood from a Kabbalistic perspective to mean that there is a perfect correspondence between the Side of Holiness and the Other Side. That is to say, that everything that exists on the Side of Holiness has its mirror image on the Other Side.

In his list of guidelines for learning the sefer Likutei Moharan, Reb Avraham b'Reb Nachman mentions this principle as one of the main laws of spiritual physics as it were, a constant theme in the teachings of Rebbe Nachman. The corresponding component on the Other Side is "k'kof b'vnei adam"--like a monkey imitating a human, i.e. that there are certain acts that are only meaningful and/or beneficial when a human performs them, such as a Torah law.

A close example of this would be a monkey performing shechitah (kosher slaughter of an animal), where, even if the monkey can be trained to perform shechitah exactly as a human does, the shechitah is invalid, and the slaughtered animal totally unfit for Jewish consumption. The point is that good and evil are often indistinguishable; in order to entrap a well-intentioned, religiously-oriented person, evil must necessarily appear as good.

For this reason, the yetzer hara that would appear to a person on a path of spiritual growth will likely not be in the form of a cheeseburger or a free ticket to Club Med; those are too obvious. More likely, the yetzer hara will manifest itself in any one of the following seemingly "right" items: behaviors, actions, aspirations, interpersonal interactions, guru-seeking, chumrahs, self-abnegation, alienation, the list is extensive.

For example, a person who becomes enamored of learning Torah will naturally want to master the entire Torah, and the anxiety that is created thereby can cause him or her to take drastic measures in order to accomplish this goal, such as staying up late into the night, burning the midnight oil, spurred on by stories of gedolei Torah who kept their feet in buckets of ice water to stay awake. Eventually, their physical health gives way, and they are not able to learn during the night or day because of burnout, not even in moderate amounts.

I have students whose entry point into Judaism was all of the Kabbalah and tikkunim that is all the rage today, who want to say Tikkun Chatzos every night, meditate, and stay out late visiting various holy sites. The next day, they are too exhausted to have a regular schedule, attend classes, try to learn how to actually learn the Torah itself. The end result is that they come away with neither the body nor soul of Judaism, since there is no way to have a comprehension of the mystical aspects of Torah without a solid grasp of its revealed aspects.

People are more excited by exponential and radical change than slow, incremental growth, and by extreme practices or modes of dress than "plain-paper" Torah or Torah personalities who, despite their stature, are barely noticeable. Yet, slow, healthy growth is the foundation of successful spiritual striving.


At July 7, 2008 at 5:17:00 PM EDT, Blogger tea mad hatter said...

very true, it always interests me to see the picture of the late Rabbi Zvi Aryeh Rosenfeld TZL, who was a very ordinary looking Yid, and also the old pictures if Mir students,the schtick seems to be a very modern Baal Teshuva phenomina, or so it seems to me.

At July 7, 2008 at 6:46:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mir was very modern in dress still in Europe.

At July 8, 2008 at 12:31:00 AM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Very important lesson in growth, thanks.

At July 8, 2008 at 9:42:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

still, the excitement is so precious. there must be ways to harness that energy w/o chas v'shalom diminishing it one iota. we have to mamish be very careful to not put a drop of water on such a precious holy fire! instead, wise guidance and encouragement is what's needed.

At July 9, 2008 at 12:56:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazingly well said! Thank you for giving me sources for this crucial advice.

What an eye opener.


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