Chassidic PsychologyTranscripts

Lectures on Chassidic Psychology Part 4: Three Stages in Healing Anxiety

Improvements and Anxiety

Let us say something more about the possible origins of anxiety. Har Shefer can also be translated as “A mounting of improvements.” Every person has many things they need to improve. If you take upon yourself a “mountain” load of improvements, then you can cause anxiety. This idea appears at the end of the Rebbe Rashab’s Kuntres Ha’avodah (chapter 7), which itself is highly recommended to be studied by every advisor. There the Rebbe Rashab advises that a person should not take upon himself too many improvements in his life all at once. Improvements might include changes that go beyond the letter of the law. When it comes to what is required by the Shulchan Aruch, there is no such limitation. We see this a lot by yeshivah students or by ba’alei teshuvah who in their excitement end up having a breakdown. This particularly happens to those who are the smartest—they take too much upon themselves and have no one to consult with. Without a good coach to tell them how to move forward, they can reach a breakdown. This is the meaning of coming to anxiety specifically from too many improvement—from Har Shefer to Charadah.

The 3 Journeys and the Patriarchs

The three journeys we have been discussing, from Har Shefer to Charadah to Makheloth correspond to the most important model in Jewish psychology: submission, separation, and sweetening, which describe the three stages in every psychological process. When corresponding these three stages to the sefirot they are loving-kindness, might, and beauty (chessed, gevurah, and tiferet). Which means that they also correspond to the three patriarchs, Abraham (loving-kindness and the right axis), Isaac (might and the left axis), and Jacob (beauty and the middle axis). Every Jew has in his psyche and soul an aspect of each of the three patriarchs.

Out of the three, the clearest correspondence is between Charadah (anxiety) and Isaac, since Isaac’s connotation for God is “Isaac’s fear.” Har Shefer (Mount Beauty) corresponds to Abraham who described the location of the Temple as “a mountain.” The Hebrew word for “mountain” (הַר) also appears in Abraham’s name (אַבְרָהָם); it also appears in his wife Sarah’s name (שָׂרָה). Indeed, Abraham is particularly connected with journeys. His Divine work starts with, “Go forth”[1] (Lech lecha) and the apex of his service, the Binding of Isaac, also begins with “Go forth.”[2] Abraham’s Divine service was overcoming nature, particularly his own nature, and there was no greater feat in that respect than his binding Isaac—going against his nature of loving-kindness. In this respect, Abraham was constantly improving himself, constantly setting higher and higher standards for himself. All of his journeys were all intentional, “He walked and traveled to the south,” where the south represents wisdom—"he who wishes to grow wise should head south”[3]—and Abraham was constantly adding wisdom and therefore needed to do more in order to be one whose, “actions are greater than his wisdom.”[4]

Makheloth corresponds to Jacob, who represents the entire Jewish people together, “Moses has commanded us the Torah, an inheritance for the community of Jacob,” where the word “community” stems from the same root as Makheloth. A community in Kabbalah corresponds to the sefirah of beauty, Jacob’s sefirah. Beauty is so called because it is the beauty of all the colors together—all the tribes, each with its particular hue, together. We need different voices (like in a choir) as long as they are singing together harmoniously. In music, there is something more sophisticated than harmony and that is canon, in which the beauty is not static but dynamic.

The initial letters of all three journey points together (הַר שֶׁפֶר חֲרָדָה מַקְהֵלוֹת) spell “joy” (שִׂמְחָה). “Serve God with joy”[5] and “The mother of the children is joyous.”[6]

Breaking Pride, Clarifying Despair, and Sweetening Fear

All three journeys are necessary as we saw, Charadah—anxiety included. Why would this be the case? In the ninth excurses on our article Perek Be’avodat Hashem, we explained that psychological work involves three main elements: shattering pride, clarifying despair, and sweetening fear or anxiety. Without getting into the details, shattering pride is the way to nullify our feelings of self-importance. Clarifying despair means separating the positive sense of “nothingness,” from the negative sense of “nothingness,” which causes despair. We might wonder how there could be positive despair or a positive sense of “nothingness.” There is an early ethical work known as Mivchar Hapeneenim. The work lists and discusses all the positive character traits a person can and should strive to develop. Together with love, humility, loving-kindness, and all the other positive traits, we find a chapter dedicated to despair. The author explains that despair is positive when it entails giving up on the world belonging to me, or that anything belongs to me or that I am entitled to anything, for that matter. There is a negative trait in the psyche that causes us to “demand,” a feeling of entitlement, or possession (this belongs to me and not to you), which gives birth to coveting and other negative traits. When a person is able to escape these feelings, he experiences despair in the positive sense. This is what it means to “clarify” despair. So we clarify (birur) the despair and we shatter the pride. Negative despair is the precursor to depression.

The third element is sweetening anxiety or fear, the sweetening of Charadah.

Submission of Anxiety

What is explained in the excurses just mentioned is that the three stages of submission, separation, and sweetening taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov need to act upon anxiety.

The first stage is the submission of anxiety. What that means is to not legitimize any type of external anxieties or fears we may have. This is what the Ba’al Shem Tov’s father told him on his deathbed, “Srulik, fear nothing in this world but God.” First of all, all fears and anxieties need to be approached as illusory and the advisor needs to take the time to explain this. Paranoia is based on imagination. It is the product of a wildly active imagination and has no basis in fact; it is the product of the memory of some past trauma. As we explained earlier, it is as if the Egyptians are chasing us right now. Normally, this is just a fabricated fantasy. Indeed, when it happened, it was fact and the Egyptians really did pursue the Jewish people. But the trauma it left in our psyches makes us feel as if we are being chased in the present.

It is not the case that all feelings of being chased are illusory—we just said that Egypt really did chase the Jewish people, but even real anxieties, real fear need to be overcome. However, 99% of all fears are illusory. So the first thing to do is to submit all fears—a Jew should not fear anything in this world.

Separation of Anxiety

Nonetheless, there is a verse that reads, “Happy is the man who is always fearful.”[7] This verse tells us that there is positive fear, positive anxiety. Simply put, this is what the sages call “fear of Heaven” (yirat shamayim). This can refer to either the lowest form of fear of God, which is also known as lower fear, or fear of punishment, or it can be the higher form of fear of God, also known as higher fear or awe of God. But, it also refers to fear of severing my connection, my bond and love with God. Severing my bond of love with God would be my fault and this is what it means to fear transgressions, which would cause that. The bond of love between me and God can be severed by my transgressions, just as my behavior could lead to the severing of my connection with a friend, or with my spouse.

The Talmud relates that by a Torah scholar, there is a fear of forgetting what one has studied because of neglect or delinquency. This fear causes one to pray, because it is only God who can protect my memory. Memory is not a personal possession. It is a gift of love from God.

So, finding a positive form of fear or anxiety is what constitutes the separation stage in rectifying anxiety. This is not yet sweetening, but it is finding a drop of positivity in an otherwise negative trait. This is also called clarification, or birur in Hebrew.

Sweetening of Anxeity

Finally, we come to the third stage, which is the sweetening within the sweetening (since anxiety, as we said, needs to be sweetened). At this stage, fear or anxiety laughs, as it were. It is transformed into laughter. This is the meaning of the connotation Jacob uses for God when describing how his father Isaac related to him. He calls God, “The fear of my father Isaac,” (פַּחַד יִצְחָק אֲבִי) which can alternatively be read as “fear will laugh.”

When you look back and you have arrived at your destination—in our case, when the Jewish people have reached the promised land, a good and wide country—it is then that you can see that this entire world, this entire lifetime, which was one long experience of anxiety and fear, becomes a source of laughter. Everything was one big laugh, forever, with tranquility and security forever. This is what it means when it says that “fear will laugh” as a connotation for God. When you have made God the source of your fear, then He becomes a source of laughter. A tzaddik, even in this world, in this lifetime laughs at it all those who are pursuing him, even if they really are. Not only is he not afraid of them, he laughs at them, because he is in an entirely different state of mind. He is already in the World to Come, while still in this life. This is the meaning of the phrase, “like the days of the heavens upon the earth”[8] (כִּימֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם עַל הָאָרֶץ), a phrase used to describe the lives of the patriarchs.

Indeed, the Talmud explicitly states that a consummate tzaddik may mock the evil inclination (who is truly pursuing all of us) and can laugh at all the negative forces in the world. Though normally we strive that a person reach the level of the intermediate, the Tanya’s beinoni [who is not yet a tzaddik], we still need to know what it our final goal is. We need to know where this is all going. We should have a vision, a picture, a description of where we are headed in our ability to deal with anxiety. To move forward, you have to have some coordinates about where you are headed, you need to have a picture in your mind about what the goal is. This is the goal described in the verse, “And your people are all tzaddikim.”[9]


Let us quickly review what we have covered. We began with the notion of the “wondrous advisor.” We need to stress again that the advisor must know that the basis for helping anyone is to recognize that the person must work, and the advisor is only coaching (which in Hebrew is מאמן, a very good word that stems from “faith,”  אמונה; the advisor is like a Moshe Rabbeinu who is sustaining and nurturing faith in others. Still, as much as hard work is required, there are some shortcuts or charms that appear from time to time through personal Divine Providence, but they require a great deal of refinement to recognize properly. Using both “work” and “charity” or tzedakah, as we saw, creates the balance in the Tree of Life. Every advisor needs to help every client find more ways to give more charity, be it spiritual or physical charity. By doing more for others, by leaving your own skin so to speak, the Torah assures you that you will feel better. To find yourself, you first have to leave yourself. You have to exit the confines of the self and then you can see that which you could not imagine before. Then we looked at the 42 journeys and focused on the three stops at Har Shefer, Charadah, and Makheloth, until we reach the promised land, with joy.

[1]. Genesis 12:1.

[2]. Ibid. 22:2.

[3]. Bava Batra 25b.

[4]. Avot 3:9.

[5]. Psalms 100:2.

[6]. Ibid. 113:9.

[7]. Proverbs 28:14.

[8]. Deuteronomy 11:21.

[9]. Isaiah 60:21.

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