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Lectures on Chassidic Psychology • Lecture 2 • Part 1 • Categories of Psychological Work

This is part one of a transcript of Rabbi Ginsburgh's class at the Torat Hanefesh School of Jewish Psychology from 13th of Av, 5769

To go to part 2, click here


What we are going to do is look at the concept of “work” in the context of psychology and, as is our usual method, survey the different ways in which work is understood and how each way corresponds to one of the Ten Sefirot. Each of the psyche’s powers or faculties needs to engage in a particular type of mental work. The advisor needs to diagnose where the most work needs to be done, that is the advisor’s most important “sense.” Once the faculty or area of the psyche has been identified, the advisor’s role is to guide the advisee on how to go about improving this area. For each of the psyche’s faculties, the Ten Sefirot, we will be meditating on a particular verse or saying from the sages, or a Chassidic teaching that will inspire our understanding of this faculty and its form of work.

Crown: “The Levite shall work”

Work rectifies the left axis

In the Book of Numbers, we find an interesting verse describing the duty of the Levites: “And the Levite shall do the work, he [alone] of the Tabernacle”[1] (וְעָבַד הַלֵּוִי הוּא אֶת עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד). The way this is written in the original Hebrew, the word “he” is left hanging and it is only contextually that we can understand that the meaning is that the Levite alone should do this work, but in that case the word “he” still seems to be unnecessary; the verse could have simply read, “And the Levite shall do the work of the Tabernacle.”

Now the sefirah of the crown is the super-consciousness, the consciousness that lies above and beyond our rational mind and our regular consciousness. It is the unconscious part of our psyche. The crown contains three faculties known as: faith, pleasure, and will; they are all unconscious. The third-person pronoun “he” is used to refer to someone who is not present, or if he is present is “hidden” from direct reference, just as the super-consciousness is hidden—which is why it is prefixed as “super,” i.e., above. Because of this, the word “he” in the verse noted is interpreted in Chassidic and Kabbalistic thought as referring to the superconscious faculties (specifically, pleasure) to which the Levite is able to ascend through his devoted work in the Tabernacle.

The Levites themselves are associated with the left axis, the left pillar among the three pillars of human effort upon which the world is sustained: the pillar of work or service. The other two pillars are acts of loving-kindness—situated on the right—and Torah—situated in the center. As an aside, we learn from this that though work as Divine service (avodah) is usually associated with the left axis, there are types of work like acts of loving-kindness and Torah that are associated with the right and center axes as well.

The point of all work or toil is that things that have value do not come easily. As Pharaoh said, “Let heavier work be laid upon the people.”[2] We have to work hard in life and life’s true blessings cannot be unlocked without hard work.

Striving for the unknown

Once again, “he” refers to that which is concealed and hidden. Through his work and toil, the Levite is able to ascend to that which is concealed, to the crown. This is the essence of the Chassidic explanation of these words. How should we understand this?

Every person lives within borders, within some situation in life that provides them with a frame of reference. It can be work, family, relationships, etc. Even if these borders of this frame are delimited by holiness, by Torah, they are confines and are therefore referred to as “an Egypt of holiness,” because Egypt (מִצְרַיִם) literally means “constraints” (מֵצָרִים). Within these borders, each of us lives and makes do, more or less. But it might be that this person does not strive to expand beyond these borders, to find new horizons, to reach the hidden. There are spiritual areas of the psyche, higher worlds, that we are not aware of yet. That is the realm of the super-consciousness, the unknown—the crown.

The two-letter root of “crown” (כֶּתֶר) is כר, which is also the two-letter root of “consciousness” or “awareness” (הַכָּרָה) and of “stranger” (נָכְרִי). An example of the connections between these words can be found in the Book of Ruth. Ruth, a newly converted convert from the nation of Moab follows her mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem and there goes out to the field to gather leftover wheat. The owner of the field, Boaz turns to Ruth, to which Ruth says, “Why have I found favor in your eyes that you are aware of me and yet I am a stranger.”[3] Ruth, who is a stranger in a strange land is suddenly approached by a prince of Judah who recognizes that she is destined to become the matriarch of the kingship. This obviously is foreign territory for her, but by opening herself up to it, she eventually becomes aware of her potential.

In each of our psyches, there is without doubt an infinite expanse of unknown. So if a person does not yearn to break beyond that which he or she is familiar with, if they feel comfortable where they are and do not want to go beyond, that is a deep problem in the psyche.

Inability to function in familiar surroundings

One should be drawn to the concealed, for example a person who yearns to learn Kabbalah and Chassidut. But there are individuals who are afraid of this or are just not drawn to it—they are comfortable in their world, the revealed world, and they are not searching for new horizons. They only want their familiar life to be good. But normally if that is what a person wants, it will not be good in the way he would like it to. He cannot figure out why things do not feel so good. He tries to develop where he is and cannot understand why it is not working out. This is particularly the case for women.

The crown is where the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew is most pronounced. A non-Jew might be content, more or less, in a familiar environment. He can develop it, fashion it as best he can, and does not have to search for the concealed. We see that in modern science there is a constant search for the unknown. Sometimes, we too need to learn from science. This is a principle known as, “from it we will learn how to serve God,” meaning that the way in which the profane or even impure parts of reality conduct themselves, can provide us with lessons on how we should be serving the Almighty. In this case, science’s search for the unknown, its profound belief that the concealed exists, its recognition that we can be said to be locked in a black box, these can all inspire us. There is even a form of anxiety, claustrophobia, where one feels as if one is locked into a box and needs to get out to breathe.

Let us connect this with Torah. On Sukkot, we sit in the Sukkah for seven days and everything we do there is considered a part of the mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah. But, someone who in order to learn Torah (in the Sukkah) needs to get out to breathe some air, is allowed to. To use Kabbalistic terms, doing would be described as exiting the realm of the mocha stima’ah (“concealed mind”) in order to reach the avira (“air”) above it. Both are parts of the sefirah of crown, but it is the avira that navigates the individual to find new ideas and conceptions.

Experiencing a “return” after the “run”

We have explained that a person needs to strive towards the concealed. But what does it means for us to serve the “he.” The phrase, “the Levite shall serve he” implies that we are supposed to do something with that which is hidden, we are meant to work with it and in this manner to serve God.

To understand this, we need to introduce the notion that service includes a dynamic known as “run and return” (רצוא ושוב). Serving God entails periods of drawing near followed by periods of drawing apart. We are here trying to explain how this run and return play out in the sefirah of crown. The “run,” in this case, is the attraction to that which is hidden, while the “return” is the attempt to make the “he” into “you,” meaning to reveal the concealed, to make it clear and present.

In the crown, the “run” is associated with its lower half (technically, its lower partzuf), known as Arich Anpin (the long countenance). Arich is the relatively external half of the crown. The “return” is associated with the crown’s inner half, Atik Yomin, which represents the Creator’s ultimate yearning to make Himself a dwelling place below. In Sefer Yetzirah this is described as, “If your heart runs [to the Creator], let it return to the one.”

We can state all of this in simple, less technical language: Regarding the crown, we say that if you see a person who has no aspirations, who is not looking to discover new horizons in his life, he has a psychological problem (especially if he or she is a Jew). As an advisor, you need to help them work on their conception of “he”; help them aspire to reach the “he” and to reveal it.

Summary of the crown

We have seen that the category of psychological work associated with the crown is learnt from the phrase, “And the Levite shall work he” (וְעָבַד הַלֵּוִי הוּא), indicating an attraction and yearning to run and return in the crown. To run towards and be attracted to the unknown, the concealed, that which is hidden, and then to reveal the “he,” to reveal it. The worst malady in this area is an indifferent person who has no yearning at all, for anything, no drive to “run.” If as an advisor you meet an individual that is apathetic, you need to work with them on their crown.

Wisdom: “You shall serve Havayah your God”

The source for the obligation to serve God and the blessings dependent on it

What is the source of our obligation to serve God [also, to work God, in Hebrew]? It can be found in a verse at the end of parashat Mishpatim (the parashah itself begins with the topic of service and work in context of the laws of a Jewish servant), “You shall serve Havayah your God and He will bless your bread and your water and I will remove illness from you. Women will not miscarry, nor will there be infertility in your land; I will fill your days” (וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֵת הוי' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם וּבֵרַךְ אֶת לַחְמְךָ וְאֶת מֵימֶיךָ וַהֲסִרֹתִי מַחֲלָה מִקִּרְבֶּךָ. לֹא תִהְיֶה מְשַׁכֵּלָה וַעֲקָרָה בְּאַרְצֶךָ אֶת מִסְפַּר יָמֶיךָ אֲמַלֵּא). What this verse and the verse right after it are saying is that by serving God all the blessings of this world come (children, health, and livelihood). Everything depends on work.

Four blessings

The Ibn Ezra notes that these two verses contain four blessings, which we can easily see correspond to the four letters of Havayah, God’s essential Name. Though it is not our main topic here, let us take a look at this beautiful correspondence.

The first two blessings, corresponding to the final two letters of Havayah, are in the first verse. “He will bless your bread and your water” corresponds to the lower hei and to the sefirah of kingdom; kingdom represents the responsibility to provide food (livelihood) for the people. This is the most basic need people have. Here the blessing is that not only will these our basic needs be met, but that they will be met with abundance—the bread and water will be blessed in our bodies.

“I will remove illness from you” corresponds to the letter vav in Havayah and the sefirah of beauty (tiferet). Bodily illness is related to this sefirah, which represents the body itself. Psychological maladies correspond to the sefirah of knowledge (da’at). These are two of the features of our model of the Torah Academy, a model that arranges the various disciplines in the modern academic world according to the sefirot. Indeed, da’at and tiferet are considered like a soul and its body and they are the external and internal aspects of the letter vav in Havayah. Thus, “I will remove illness from you” covers both physical and psychological illness.

The next blessings, “nor will there be infertility in your land” obviously corresponds to the mother principle, the sefirah of understanding (binah) and the first letter hei in Havayah.

Finally, the final blessing in these verses, “I will fill your days,” corresponds with wisdom and the letter yud of Havayah. A long life is characterized by having many days filled with light, i.e., Divine revelation, the subject of the verse, “And God called the light ‘day.’” The revelation of Divine light is the hallmark of the sefirah of wisdom. Moreover, the letter yud also has a tip that alludes to the crown above it. The lower part of the crown, as we have seen, is called Arich Anpin, meaning literally, “long days.” Thus, its extension into the yud, of which it is a part, brings long life into wisdom, as well as new insights every day.

Prayer as work

Let us now return to the phrase we are focusing on, “You shall serve Havayah your God.” According to Maimonides, even though this would seem to be a general all-inclusive statement regarding our obligation to serve God and Maimonides does not count such obligations among the 613 particular commandments, this is not the case. This verse is referring to a particular way in which we serve God—prayer.

Just as in the Temple there was service conducted through sacrifices, when the Temple was destroyed, the sages substituted the daily sacrifices with regular daily prayers. Still, Maimonides explains that this verse indicates that there is an obligation already from the Torah itself to pray, at least once a day. This obligation is independent of the substitution of prayer for the sacrifices, according to Maimonides.

Because of this verse, it is common among chassidim to designate an individual who goes above and beyond to invest his time and effort in prayer an oved, which literally means, “one who serves,” or “one who works.” In our generation, a oved could certainly be used to describe a person who is committed to serving God in other ways as well, but prayer was in times past the hallmark of the oved.

Serving God and Obliterating Idolatry

However, if we look at the context of this verse, this phrase describing our obligation to serve/work God, we find that the two verses that precede it read, “When My angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I annihilate them. You shall not bow down to their gods in worship or follow their practices but shall tear them down and smash their pillars to bits.” So, serving God comes after the obligation to obliterate idolatry—which can also be understood as referring to negative psychological practices.

Because of the proximity between these two obligations—obliterating idolatry in the land of Israel and serving God—there are commentaries, such as the Or Hachaim, that explain that this is what makes the obligation to serve God here unique and particular, allowing it to be identified with prayer. In any case, obliterating idolatry is part of what it means to serve or work God.

Nullifying one’s egocentricity

Now we need to take these concepts and abstract them. We do not usually expect to go outside and find an idol to shatter, as did Abraham. The reference here is to something far more abstract and commonplace—to the idol in our heart. An idol is also called an etzev in Hebrew.[4] This Hebrew word is also related to “mood,” especially when meant in a negative sense, as in, “He’s in a mood.” So, this idol, this monument that is erected in his honor, today we call this egocentricity. This is the hubris, the feeling of self-pride of man. It is written that of all forms of idolatry, the worst is self-worship; there is no greater abomination. The way to obliterate it is by making fun of it, just as one would act towards classic idolatry. The Talmud writes that if an individual seduces others to worship him—he makes himself into an object of worship—you need to make fun and ridicule him. The ability to nullify the ego, the idolatry and self-worship of the ego comes from the sefirah of wisdom, whose inner experience is one of self-nullification.

There is a principle in Israel that the two letters ayin (ע) and alef (א) are related in a manner that the ayin is like a garment that conceals an alef. So, many times, when you find an ayin in a word, there is an alef concealed inside. Thus, to serve/work God, which is avad with an ayin (עבד) is harboring in itself an avad with an alef (אבד), which is the root of “to obliterate,” as in our verse. In order to serve and work for God, one has to first obliterate one’s hubris. As God says, “He and I cannot live in the same place.”[5]

If there is one concept that is the most central and important in all our classes, it is this notion of submission and nullification, and of course its compliment, lowliness. We have then seen that nullifying one’s hubris is akin to obliterating idolatry and this act itself is designated as serving/working for God.

Nullifying the Different Aspects of Idolatry

Obliterating idolatry was actually the first mitzvah performed by Abraham, our forefather, when he shattered his father’s idols. Abraham was all loving-kindness. His intent was to bring the idolaters closer to God, to convert them to monotheism. But when it came to the idols themselves—the false superstitions—these he obliterated and so should we. Doing so is serving God.

As we mentioned earlier, there are certain so-called methods of psychological treatment that are absolute deceit, yet they are presented as if they are psychological treatments. Not only are these methods false and people in need are being taken advantage of, but sometimes they actually contain actual idolatrous practices. To begin working for God, you must eliminate these practices.

The most important form of wiping out idolatry is in knowledge (da’at), the shattering is in the heart, and the obliteration represents the power of action. Again, the verse contains all three acts, “You shall not bow down to their gods in worship or follow their practices but shall tear them down and smash their pillars to bits.” There is a clear structure to this verse. “You shall tear them down” parallels “you shall not… follow their practices.” “You shall tear down and smash their pillars to bits” parallels “You shall not bow down to their gods.” The first two refer to matters of the heart and the second two to matters of practical worship and ritual.

Wisdom and Nullification

In the model of categories of psychological work that we are developing here, we not are discussing wisdom and we place the obligation to obliterate idolatry in wisdom. Wisdom is about nullification and what we are saying is that nullifying our callous ego is the type of work done in this category. It is possible to reach a true state of self-nullification, which in Chassidic thought is called nullification of being, or true nullification of being.

We thus have a category of psychological work that relates to wisdom. According to Maimonides, the essence of the entire Torah is the nullification and eradication of idolatry. A chassid would say that if we were to summarize the entire Tanya in one phrase, it would be, “Do not fool yourself.” Do not fool yourself into thinking that you have reached the state of being a tzaddik. Do not think about yourself as a tzaddik. But, once again, according to Maimonides, the essence of the entire Torah is the eradication of idolatry beginning, as we have explained, with every hint of self-worship.

The Beginning of Work

Since all work is associated with the left axis of the sefirot, psychological work also should begin with, “the left rejects.” We need to first of all reject any hint of idolatry, any aberration or deviation from the absolutely clear truth of serving God alone. That is the way to fulfill the verse, “Turn away from evil and do good,” according to its literal order: first refrain from the evil—in this case, by eradicating idolatry, self worship—and only then can you turn to doing good by serving God.

There is a well-known verse that reads, “On that day, Havayah will be one and His Name will be one” (וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִהְיֶה הוי' אֶחָד וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד). The first part of the verse, “Havayah will be one” implies serving only God, who is one and singular, alone. That “His Name will be one” implies the eradication of idolatry (and self-worship). The value of “His Name [will be] one” (וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד) equals “the eradication of idolatry” (בִּטּוּל עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה). By eradicating idolatry, God’s Name is revealed and sanctified in reality.

These two pillars of Divine service or work are symbolized in the two pillars that stood at the entrance to the Sanctuary in the Temple. These pillars were known as Yachin and Bo’az.[6] Yachin alludes to “preparation” of one’s heart to serve God, until one sees that God is one. While Bo’az alludes to the eradication of idolatry, as its name applies—Bo’az means “might is in him.” The letters of Bo’az (בֹּעַז) are also an acronym for the phrase, “the eradication of idolatry” (בִּטּוּל עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה). In fact, the sum of these two names, Yachin and Bo’az (יָכִין בֹּעַז) is 169, or the square of the value of “one” (אֶחָד), 13, instruction us that all is one.

Therapy for Hubris

Now, if someone walks into our advisor, it might become readily apparent that the root cause of all their problems is that they have a great deal of hubris and vanity. This is the case by most people, but sometimes the problem really stands out. Sometimes the self-worship is formidable that we can only hope that this person does not stand in front of the mirror worshipping himself. What kind of therapy, what kid of work does he need? He needs this labor of “You shall serve Havayah your God,” which according to the Or Hachaim and other commentaries, literally refers to eradicating idolatry.

The Toil of Learning Torah—the Tree of Life

The Sifrei offers us another interpretation of the phrase we have been considering, apart from it relating to prayer. The Sifrei says that it refers to learning. The connection between this interpretation and the sefirah of wisdom is even clearer than that it refers to eradicating idolatry.

Many times, when the Torah speaks of toil, it is referring to the toil invested in learning Torah. If a person comes to seek advice and they are a scholar, someone who can learn and for some reason he is not using the intellect that God gave him, he does not have a daily learning schedule, that is a problem. All the advice we need can be found in the Torah. We spoke in the previous class on the advice that comes from the Tree of Life. The Torah itself is the Tree of Life for those who cling to it, and those who support it are happy. So once again, there are those who want to find charms or shortcuts. But, as Jews we have the Torah and the mitzvoth and so we have the commandments to nullify and eradicate idolatry and to learn Torah.

Finding Advice through the Toil in Torah

Where should we place the Sifrei’s interpretation? This is another aspect of wisdom without a doubt, which the Zohar describes as, “Torah emerges from wisdom.” To serve God with study is certainly connected to serving Him through prayer.

It is written that God placed man in the Garden of Eden in order to work it and in order to safeguard it. The Zohar writes that to “work” the garden refers to the 248 prescriptive commandments—the good advice on what we should do—and “safeguarding” the garden refers to the 356 prohibitive commandments—the advice on what NOT to do. The inner essence of the Garden of Eden is the Tree of Life and so all these pieces of advice are meant to help us merit attaining the Tree of Life. There is also a statement from the sages that “to work it” refers to learning Torah and “to safeguard it” refers to the commandments.

So we have two important verses that tell us that to work means to learn Torah. This is the most straightforward idea: a Jew, if he has a problem, must invest himself in learning Torah with toil. Where is the cure? In the Torah. You will find it yourself. It says that if someone learns Torah with real yirat shamayim (fear of Heaven), one will find the cure himself in the Torah. So we have this second category of mental work that is related to wisdom.

To go to part 2, click here


[1]. Numbers 18:23.

[2]. Exodus 5:9. See Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Hayom Yom for the 24th of Tammuz.

[3]. Ruth 2:10.

[4]. See for example Jeremiah 22:28.

[5]. Sotah 5a.

[6]. 1 Kings 7:15-20. Jeremiah 52:21-23.

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