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Lectures on Chassidic Psychology • Lecture 2 • Part 4 • Categories of Psychological Work: Thoroughness, Self-fulfillment, and Servitude,

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

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To go to Part 3 click here


Acknowledgment: Work that is Complete

Work that Has no Subsequent Work

The phrase describing the category of work associated with the sefirah of acknowledgment (hod) is “Work that is Complete” (עבדה תמה). The source of this phrase is in the verse we saw earlier, “You shall serve, I give you the priesthood as a service of giving; and the common man that draws near shall be put to death”[1] (וַעֲבַדְתֶּם עֲבֹדַת מַתָּנָה אֶתֵּן אֶת־כְּהֻנַּתְכֶם וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת). The Torah mentions “You shall serve” (וַעֲבַדְתֶּם) twice in the context of serving God. We have seen both verses; the first was in regard to the sefirah of wisdom, “You shall serve Havayah your God” (וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֵת הוי' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם).[2]

In the verse, “You shall serve… a service of giving” (וַעֲבַדְתֶּם עֲבֹדַת מַתָּנָה), the sages[3] interpret the word “You shall serve” to mean, “Work that is complete” (עבודה תמה), meaning an action that does not require any other actions to be taken to complete it. For instance, when sacrificing an animal, four actions are needed to complete the offering: slaughtering, receiving the blood, taking the blood to the altar, and finally, pouring the blood on the altar. Each of the first three cannot be called “work that is complete,” because the offering is not complete when they have been performed. The end is only when the blood has been poured on the altar. The blood poured on the altar is called a “gift” (מַתָּנָה), meaning something that has been given, thus it is both a work of giving and a complete form of work.

Although one who is not a priest may not receive the blood of the sacrifice, nor may he bring it to the altar, only performing the last one, pouring the blood on the altar is punishable by death from Heaven because only it is defined as “work that is complete.” In contrast, slaughtering the animal itself is permitted even for a non-priest.

This concept of “work that is complete” is clearly related to the sefirah of acknowledgment because its inner experience is one of “completeness” (תמימות), which we also sometimes translate as earnestness or sincerity.

One who starts but does not complete suffers from existential angst

Now let us translate this type of service or work into its psychological category. There are many people—this is perhaps the most common problem—whose problem is that they cannot finish things. They start a project, start a task, perhaps start taking a course, but cannot finish it. There is nothing more frustrating, even if the person himself cannot identify the source of the frustration. This person’s existential problem in life is that he starts but cannot complete. He starts a book but cannot finish it. This is a psychological problem, just as being miserly is a psychological problem. If one is a miser it does not mean that he is evil or wicked, because the traits of all Jews are (as we saw) that they are be compassionate, meek, and benevolent. Rather, there is some husk, some kelipah that is preventing him from opening his heart and his hand. Likewise, in this case, there is another type of kelipah that causes the worst kinds of frustration and can lead to terrible situations, Heaven forbid, whereby a person cannot complete things. From this state, he can come to a state of despair, which is the malady of the sefirah of acknowledgment expressed in the verse, “my vigor [hod] has turned destructive”[4] (וְהוֹדִי נֶהְפַּךְ עָלַי לְמַשְׁחִית). When the word hod (הוֹד) is written in reverse it becomes “misery” (דָּוָה) as in the phrase from Lamentations, “in constant misery”[5] (כָּל־הַיּוֹם דָּוָה). Despair can lead to all manners of terrible suffering, all because a person has given up halfway to his goal. In general, our faculty of acknowledgment is responsible for all forms of perseverance, persistence, and diligence.

Work that is complete; the ability to finish things; a mitzvah is attributed to the one who completed it

There is a rabbinic saying regarding the importance of persistence and finishing what one has started. On the verse, “You shall faithfully observe all the mitzvah that I enjoin upon you today” (כָּל־הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם תִּשְׁמְרוּן לַעֲשׂוֹת). From the seemingly superfluous word “all [the mitzvah]” the sages learn (and Rashi brings this in his commentary) that, “a mitzvah is attributed only to the person who completed it.” Every general principle like this one has a source and in this case the source is found in relation to Joseph’s remains. The prophet tells us, “The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem.”[6] Who was the one who brought Joseph’s remains out of Egypt and carried them tirelessly with him for 40 years? It was Moshe Rabbeinu. Why then does the prophet attribute it to the Israelites as a whole? Because Moshe Rabbeinu did not cross the Jordan. It was not he who brought Joseph to Shechem. Because they completed the mitzvah, the entire mitzvah was attributed to them.

We have here Joseph who is the archetypal soul of foundation, Moshe Rabbeinu who is the archetypal soul of victory and the principle that we learned is related to the sefirah of acknowledgment. So this is a very basic mechanism in the psyche with which we can help people free themselves from this inability to complete things in their life. This is the first meaning of “work that is complete” (עֲבוֹדָה תַּמָּה).

Feeling that Every Act is Complete and Important in and of Itself

A second explanation for “work that is complete” in the psyche is when you feel that all that you do is complete. The Zohar is replete with instances in which after a sage or sages heard a chiddush, a novel Torah idea from another sage they say “it was worth it for me to come to the world if only to hear this teaching.”

The Ba’al shem Tov said this in another manner. He said that it is worthwhile to live for 70 years and even more in order to help one person one time, for instance, to help someone cross the street. When you merit doing a mitzvah, it justifies even seventy years of life.

This is a mentality a person needs to adopt. We said that the problem associated with acknowledgment is despair because of an inability to complete what you do. But there is another related form of despair, which happens even if I do finish something. I finish it and I say, “What for?” I feel that it was futile. It has no value in my eyes. Indeed, for me it may seem that it is futile, but in the eyes of God it is very valuable. I need to recognize that for God it is definitely worthwhile as we say that one of the principles of faith of the Torah’s inner dimension is that, “Our service is needed Above” (עבודה צורך גבוה). Indeed, of the nine principles of faith discussed in the Torah’s inner dimension, this principle corresponds to understanding (binah) and as the Zohar says, “Understanding extends to acknowledgment” (בינה עד הוד אתפשטת).

Even the most minor act has value and I have to acknowledge God, I have to give thanks (acknowledgment, hod, can also be translated as thanksgiving) to God for allowing me to successfully complete every action. This too is the meaning of “work that is complete.” This second interpretation is even closer to the literal meaning than finishing what I start.

There are two well-known anthologies of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings—Keter Shem Tov and Tzava’at Harivash. The latter begins with the necessity of being “earnest in one’s service of God, with work that is complete.” A person should always be in a state of appreciating that what I have just done does not need any further work, I do not need anything more and all of my life was worthwhile if only for this mitzvah I just performed. Being thankful is the work associated with acknowledgment. This is psychological work that rectifies our mentality.

Foundation: “A man goes out to act and work until evening”

Personal Mission

Corresponding to the sefirah of foundation (yesod), there is a well-known verse from Psalms, “Man goes out to his labor and to his work until the evening”[7] (יֵצֵא אָדָם לְפָעֳלוֹ וְלַעֲבֹדָתוֹ עֲדֵי־עָרֶב). The literal meaning is that when the day starts, people go out to their labors and work until sunset, i.e., we work from sunrise to sunset. One interpretation in the sages is that the words, “until the evening,” refer to the World to Come.

In Hayom Yom,[8] the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the entire verse as referring to the World to Come. What a person works on in this present reality, he will continue to do in the World to Come. If he has learnt Torah in this world, then he will continue with more vigor in the World to Come. He differentiates between “labor” (פֹּעֲלוֹ) and “work” (עֲבוֹדָתוֹ). The first is general, the latter specific. The general work is to make our form (our spiritual dimension) superior to our matter (our physical dimension) by illuminating the world with light of Torah and the candle of a mitzvah. The specific work is the particular mission that every soul is entrusted to perform with its mind and soul.

What does this interpretation tell us and how is it related to the sefirah of foundation? In the Zohar and in Chassidut, foundation represents a feeling of having a mission in life. Foundation is referred to as “the messenger.” Who send it on its mission? It can be the sefirah of beauty (tiferet) or knowledge, or the crown; in any case it is the messenger. And it is being sent to kingdom (malchut), representing the reality we live in. A tzaddik, who is described as, “the tzaddik, the foundation of the world,” is God’s messenger.

Lack of focus and imagination

There is another point we neglected to mention earlier about knowledge (da’at), apart from the issue of thinking deeply about things. A person is most susceptible to fantasies when they lack focus, when they have no clear direction in life; if they are doing things by rote. Being static as opposed to dynamic makes you susceptible to fantasies. In general, a Jew is described as “progressing” (מהלכים) as opposed to being “static” (עומדים). Whenever a person become static, his imagination will capture his mind from every direction. But, if he has focus and direction, he is progressing. Motion itself rebuffs fantasies—the impure husks (kelipot) that want to take hold. They become irrelevant. Once I have direction in life and am focused, everything else seems ridiculous, or at worst, a nuisance. Do the words I just heard on the radio concern my mission in life? A person with direction and focus does not have time to read the newspaper or listen to the radio, he has no time for things that for him are extraneous. If a person has no focus in life, that means that he is without “knowledge” (da’at) and that makes his faculty of knowledge susceptible. Now the point is that what is knowledge in the intellect parallels the foundation (yesod) among the emotive faculties.

“His labor” and Success

There are people whose main problem is that they do not feel they have a purpose, a mission in life. Every person is born into this world in order to do something, to fulfill a goal—and this consists of two dimensions: there is the general labor (פֹּעֲלוֹ) and the particular work (עֲבוֹדָתוֹ). We are speaking here about his particular work.

The two dimensions are related grammatically. There are many examples of Hebrew roots where the second letter of one serves as the origin of the other. Like in this case, work (עבד) originates from the second letter of labor (פעל). As mentioned, labor represents the general direction you want to take in life, while work represents the particular task you are engaged in today. An example of someone who had a clear general direction in his life is Joseph the tzaddik and he is the archetypal soul of foundation. Everything that he does, day by day, is related to his general mission in life. That is why he is called “a successful man” (איש מצליח).

The problem we described that strikes acknowledgment (hod) was that a person cannot finish anything. More particularly, we mentioned that this could also be a problem with feeling successful—you could finish tasks but not feel that they are significant, that this particular task is why your soul came down to the world to do. When acknowledgment is rectified then even doing one single mitzvah in a span of 70 years feels significant and worthwhile. But, even if you feel that way, it does not automatically mean that you feel that this mitzvah that you did is related to your life’s mission. Knowing one’s mission is far more than being able to acknowledge and give thanks for a single mitzvah. If you are a Lubavitcher, for instance, then your mission is your shlichus—the Chabad house that you open somewhere and where you concentrate your efforts with self-sacrifice. That is an example of a mission in life—a shlichus.

A Sweet and Professional Shlichus

What about the end of the verse, “[to his work] until evening.” Foundation corresponds to the West, where the sun sets in the evening. The sages, as we noted, identify the notion of “until evening” with the World to Come, because that is when one receives the reward for one’s work in this world.

The word “evening” (ערב) is also related to “savory” (ערבות). What is the difference between “savory” and “sweet?” Sweet is used to describe something that is naturally sweet, like a lump of sugar, but savory describes a dish that was not initially so good but was made savory by adding spices. Thus, a dish that is savory is better than one that is sweet. This is the very power of foundation—the ability to add a spice to reality by performing one’s mission, one’s shlichus. Thus, the word “evening” and “savory” both mean mixing—mixing light and dark or mixing spices with food—all in order to make reality better and more savory. Spicing food properly is a culinary secret, a professional secret—an amateur cannot do it right. To be an emissary with a mission you need to be a professional, like a pharmacist, to know exactly what to add. There are a lot of professional secrets that make your mission successful.

Yet, it is important to recall that some people are at an earlier stage (especially younger people). They have not yet figured out what their mission in life is, they do not yet know for what labor they are leaving in the morning and what work they should be doing until evening. They are not yet amateurs in their field, let alone professionals that know how to spice reality to make it savory.

Committment through Identification

Foundation is thus the work of perfecting your mission until you reach a state of it being savory. Normally, we say that the reward is in the World to Come, but it then follows that the foundation contains a certain taste of the future. The sages indeed say that there were three individuals whom God fed the taste of the World to Come in this world. This is what one who rectifies his foundation receives. Indeed, the procreative organ, which corresponds to foundation, is known as the organ of pleasure.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that if there is a mitzvah, which might be great in and of itself, but it is not your particular mission in this world, then if there are many hurdles on the way to this performing it, you do not have to go overboard to succeed, you can find a different direction. But if this mitzvah is part of your mission, then you must not allow any difficulties to stop you from perfecting it. You have to persevere, “until evening,” until the sour turns sweet.

Kingdom: Servitude

A Jew is the Servant of God

We finally have arrived at kingdom, which includes the basic meaning of work, which we have not yet mentioned. In languages other than Hebrew, when you say that you work, the main thing you are referring to is the type of work. However, in Hebrew, the same word also means “servant,” and there the stress is on “who are you serving?” This is because in Hebrew, work (עבודה) means servitude, like a Hebrew servant (עבד עברי).

The first of the Ten Commandments tells us that God took us out of Egypt out of a house of servitude. The sages say that we learn from this that the Jewish people are God’s servants and should not serve anyone who himself is a servant. Just as we should fear no one but God, we should serve only God. We said earlier that work deteriorated from Adam to Cain, but then it deteriorated even more until it reached Canaan who became, “a slave to his brothers.” When it reached Canaan, work had fallen to the lowest level possible and had become the basis of slavery.

Work is connected with service, like the service and rituals done in the Temple. But ritual alone does not capture the full meaning of “work.” I can be a freelancer who gets hired to do work for some contractor. A servant though can only do the work of his master. You can say, what’s your work? And I could answer, “I’m an electrician.” That does not mean that you belong to the person who contracted your work as an electrician. But in Hebrew, to work is to be in servitude, to belong to someone, to a master.

In the case of our connection with God, every Jew is like such a servant that belongs to the Master of the Universe. There are different levels of ownership that you can experience. In the world of Creation, every Jew is like a Hebrew maidservant. In the world of Formation, every Jew is like a Hebrew servant. And in the world of Action, we belong so completely to God, that we are like non-Jewish slaves (i.e., a Canaanite slave).

So, to work and serve in Hebrew means to belong, to be the possession of someone. Rav Kook used to sign his letters, “A servant to a holy people.” He would declare, “I am nothing more than a servant.”

The Cultural Battle Against Servitude

Today it is difficult to talk about servitude as something positive, as a category of psychological work. It goes against the entire Western mentality to say that you are someone’s servant. Western civilization today is fighting against the mentality associated with servitude. Everyone is encouraged to feel free. This battle is actually a battle against the Torah.

Sometimes, you fight against something and it’s a good thing, because there are negative aspects that need to be purged from that thing. But you have to be careful to not completely abnegate it, you may end up pouring out the baby with the dirty bathwater, so to speak.

The same can be said, for instance, in the fight against monarchy in the world. Seeking to completely nullify the sovereignty of monarchs is on a certain level very good. But if you destroy monarchy, i.e., the concept of kingdom altogether, if there are no kings at all, then you have also negated the concept of “David, the king of Israel, is alive and exists.” And that should not be your goal.

The same goes for servitude. Servitude too as we just saw corresponds to the sefirah of kingdom. Actually, monarchy and servitude are mutually dependent, as in truth it is a king who has servants. If you throw out servitude then you also harm the family because healthy family life demands that both the husband and the wife feel that they are servants, that they belong to their bond. This is the whole point behind the ketubah, the marriage contract. Both become servants. Marriage is not just a commitment to one another it is a commitment to our common bond, a commitment to serving that bond and the family it begets. You both belong to something higher. Just as Rav Kook said about himself, “A servant to a holy people”—he belongs to the Jewish people, they are his master and he is their servant. This is also how we can understand that “Hebrew servant” (עבד עברי) has the same value as “Mashiach” (משיח). The Mashiach is a servant.

The Rectification of Servitude

We said earlier that with Canaan, work or slavery reached an absolute low. About Canaan, Noah said, “Cursed is Canaan, a slave of slaves he shall be to his brothers.”[9] Who was the first to rectify the concept of slavery? The sages say that Eliezer did this when he described himself, “I am Abraham’s servant.”[10] The sages tell us that Eliezer was Canaan himself and by identifying himself as Abraham’s servant, by recognizing the image of a holy master in Abraham, he rectified the whole concept of slavery and turned it into rectified servitude. Doing so lifted the curse Noah had placed on him and made him blessed. For Eliezer to be Abraham’s slave, his servant, was the greatest possible joy.[11] The two—joy and lowliness—are interdependent.

It was then Moshe Rabbeinu that continued to rectify the concept of slavery by being described as “God’s servant.”[12] After him there were many people that God described as “His servant.”

Kabbalah explains that Eliezer’s rectified servitude continued and spiritually passed on through Joseph and then through many others, until it eventually reaches the Mashiach. This is a story of the further and further rectification of the concept of slavery and servitude in the right way and to holiness.

Kingdom, Lowliness, and Servitude

Once again, servitude is the category of work needed in kingdom, it is the foundation that holds our hold model up. A Jew (and to a certain extent, every human being) should strive to feel that he or she belongs to God, so much so, that they can identify themselves as belonging to God. I am God’s servant and that is the greatest joy in life.

There are people, who because of modern Western culture, cannot serve anyone. Such a person will almost have poor family life because he cannot submit, he cannot tolerate being in a lowly state. Kingdom is lowliness.


We have now finished the complete model of the psychological categories of work. Our School of Jewish Psychology is geared to teach people about work, how to work, and how through correct work, almost every problem, with God’s help, can be solved. Just work, and as Pharaoh said, “Let the work lay heavily [which also means “honor” in Hebrew] on the people.”[13] Give a great deal of honor to God by working a lot.

Let us quickly summarize all that we have seen. In the crown there is the work of revealing that which is concealed—constantly finding new horizons of the unrevealed “He,” transforming the unknown into a habitable place, transforming chaos into civilization, as the verse says, “He [God] did not create it [the earth] for chaos, but to be civilized.” This is like reaching the Wild West and civilizing it. We learn this from the Torah’s first mitzvah—“Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it.” In wisdom we said there is the work of learning Torah and nullifying idolatry, i.e., the ego. In understanding we saw the root of prayer with contemplation and the work of joy (joyful melodies). Knowledge is the work of rectifying the imagination by considering reality more seriously and by finding direction—which is the root of finding one’s mission, which we discussed in foundation. Loving-kindness was the work of giving of ourselves. Might was the refinement of fear, learning to fear only God and nothing else; trembling during joy. Beauty was about tanning the raw hides or refining our character traits. Victory, we said is about going above and beyond our nature, using it for the work of charity that leads to eternal peace. Acknowledgment is work that is complete and means working on finishing your tasks, not despairing in the middle and being able to give thanks for every small job you have finished appreciating that it is a gift that God has given you and being content with it.[14] Foundation is about finding one’s mission or shlichus. In secular terms this would be called self-fulfillment, beginning with having children (which can be seen as preserving the human species and on a deeper level, increasing the image of God present in corporeality). Kingdom is the work needed to feel servitude, to take on the yoke of Heaven and to feel that you are a servant to a master (be it God, the king of Israel, the Jewish people, or your family). In the Torah, this is the most important meaning of the verb “to work.” You also need to be God’s son, you need both, and there is additionally a level described in Chassidic writings as, “a son who has elevated to the state of being a servant,” as explained by the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe.

May the Almighty merit that we have meaningful and honorable work and may the “Hebrew servant” finally be set free (by the redemption).

[1]. Numbers 18:7.

[2]. The word appears altogether 7 times in the Pentateuch. 2 times referring to serving God and 5 times referring to idolatry. The division of 7 instances into 2 and 5 is common in the Torah and reflects the word “gold” (זהב) the value of whose letters exhibit this relationship.

[3]. Yoma 24b.

[4]. Daniel 10:8.

[5]. Lamentations 1:13.

[6]. Joshua 24:32.

[7]. Psalms 104:23.

[8]. To the first day of 1 Adar: It is written: “Man goes out to his labor and to his work until evening.” Every soul in its descent into this material world has general and personal tasks. This, then, is the meaning of the verse:

Man goes out to his work—the soul “goes out” from its position in the trove of souls, in the highest heavens, and descends from plane to plane until it comes to be invested in a body and in the natural and animal souls. The purpose of this descent is “man to his work”—to his general task of achieving dominance of “form over matter” (meaning, the spiritual over the material), to illuminate the world with the light of Torah and the candle of mitzvah.

…to his labor refers to each individual's particular mission, for every soul has its unique labor in intellect and emotions according to its nature and character.

…until evening—while there is still time to accomplish, as it is written, “Today, to perform them (the mitzvoth).”

On a more profound level the verse may be explained as follows: The verse refers to the ascent of the soul in general, achieved by its prior descent (Man goes out) into the material world. When the soul ascends from its being enclothed in the body in this material world, then …to his work – the soul’s occupation in the World to Come is commensurate with its occupation in the material world. If he had studied Torah regularly, there too (in the World to Come) the soul is ushered into the “Tents of Torah”; …to his labor—if he performed his mission properly then his ascent goes on, …until erev (literally, “evening”)—higher and higher until he attains the ultimate delight and areivut (“sweetness”) of the Essence of the Infinite, may He be blessed.

[9]. Genesis 9:25.

[10]. Ibid. 24:34.

[11]. There is an entire book titled, Ma’amar Hashiflut Vehasimchah, written by Rabbi Isaac of Homel (Gomel), dedicated to explaining how it is that from the lowliness [of begin a servant] one comes to joy.

[12]. Exodus 14:31, Numbers 12:7-8, Deuteronomy 34:5, and in many other places in the Prophets and Writings.

[13]. Exodus 5:9.

[14]. A good example is the Dayeinu in the Passover Haggadah. At the end of every stage, we reach a state of being content (even though without a doubt the subsequent stages are all necessary as well).

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