Chassidic Psychologymain posts

Staying on the Straight Highway

“Every path of a man is straight in his eyes.”[1] In his first nature, every person feels that he is right. ‘I have clear thinking, a healthy heart, and conduct that is in line with both of them. What can possibly go wrong?’ Hence, even when it is clear that our clear thinker has failed, he tends to justify his position to himself and to others. The Rebbe Rayatz calls this justification narrative “the enemy masquerading as an ally.” It strokes the ego like an ally, but it is an enemy that sabotages a person’s ability to look at himself critically, rectify his mistakes and improve. From this starting point, Torah study will also not foster the desired rectification. When a person’s own intellect is the foundation of his worldview, then anything that he learns is nothing more than a possibility that requires proof. The person then proceeds to fashion or distort his Torah study as per his pre-existing narrative. His own opinion is the right opinion in his mind.

Rectification of the soul begins with turning all of this around. It requires a revolution in the orientation of the intellect and a transition to the recognition that it is specifically the Torah that is the foundation of truth and that one’s own intellect is nothing more than a possibility. If the Torah’s teachings do not sit well with me, I have to work on changing my approach to my assumptions and to the Torah. I should not be attempting to fashion the Torah’s teachings to fit with my own narrative. It is only this type of change, which is based on the sincerity of the heart in relating to every teaching of the Torah, that makes it possible to truly rectify the intellect.

When we afford the Divine truth of the Torah its worthy weight in our intellect, we can also bring it into our hearts. Generally “the intellect rules the heart” – even when the attributes of the heart are not rectified. The ruling intellect forces the person to conduct himself in a Torah manner. Furthermore, the intellect gives birth to emotions. Proper contemplation can direct emotions and conform them to the rulings of Jewish law. The propensity of the intellect to include-permit or reject-prohibit illuminates the heart and directs it as to what to adopt and what to rebuff. My willingness, however, to adopt the absoluteness of the truth of the Torah paves new highways in the heart and opens the way for even the more abstract parts of the Torah – much loftier than the bottom line of Jewish law – to illuminate the heart and fashion its attributes.

We may have thought that a person who learns Torah in this manner will not innovate new Torah thoughts. ‘How can I infuse my confused intellect into the holy truth of the Torah?’ In truth, however, every meeting between my soul and my unique understanding of the Torah gives birth to innovation. That is the definition of Torah study. For the innovations to be true, the study has to come from the approach outlined above: The Torah is absolute, imperative truth and hence, the study is for the sake of fulfilling its directives. This type of study, the purpose of which is to rectify and change one’s actions, also verifies one’s understanding and ensures that the Torah innovations will be true (and not, God forbid, vapid thoughts or erroneous conclusions).

Regarding a person who reaches this level, it is written, “Happy (Ashrei) is the man whose boldness is in You, in whose heart are the highways.”[2] When the boldness in the Torah is an absolute and imperative gauge, the person merits complete rectification. The process of constant straightening (yishur, a permutation of ashrei) of the highways in the heart makes him straight and happy. Connecting to a person who merits this state, to a rebbe to whom God’s word is clear (bari in Hebrew, a permutation of rebbe) creates a holding point that makes it possible for his student to straighten himself and identify his generation’s special highway, and his own personal highway.

Image by Joe from Pixabay

[1] Proverbs 21:2.

[2] Psalms 84:6.

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