Overcoming the Dangers of
Intense Religiosity (pt. 1)
Rabbi Yehoishophot OliverWhoa. Take it easy.
Is it good to be passionate and intense about goodness and holiness? Yes, undoubtedly. In fact, we are commanded to strive for this state, and not only is one who lacks passion neglectful, but he is at great risk of sliding into sin, for spiritual coldness and apathy lead one to all manner of evil, may Hashem save us.
Yet one must also take precautions to ensure that this intensity of feeling not go overboard and be expressed inappropriately.
The goal of learning about Hashem’s greatness is that this knowledge inspire one to genuine feelings for Hashem—middos (emotions) of ahavah ve’yirah, love and awe of Hashem (see here).
Then instead of simply going through the motions—known as “Mitzvas anoshim melumadah”—one’s heart will be in it:
- Not only will he no longer view Mitzvos as an odious chore, but since he knows that performing the Mitzvos draws him into a close connection with Hashem, he eagerly looks forward to the opportunity to fulfill them, and does so with great gusto and joy.
- Likewise, his awareness that sin separates and distances him from Hashem makes the very thought of sinning repulsive and motivates him to do his utmost to avoid falling in sin.
To explain, Chassidus teaches that Hashem “made this one,” Kelipah, spiritual impurity, “opposite this one,” Kedushah, holiness. Kelipah and Kedushah (see here) parallel each other. The same is true of the emotions that stem from these two cosmic forces, respectively: The unworthy emotions of the Bestial Soul parallel the worthy emotions of the Divine Soul (see here).
When one succeeds in this process of transforming one’s emotions, the holy emotions replace the unholy ones (see here). In this state, love of physicality is replaced by its counterpart in holiness, love of Hashem. Fear related to one’s physical life (e.g., fear of pain, poverty, shame, and so on) is replaced with fear of Hashem.
However, by their very nature, emotions are egotistical. This holds true not only of the undesirable or at least selfish emotions of the Bestial Soul, but even of the holy emotions of the Neshamah, the Divine Soul.
Emotions are all about personal feelings and desires. One could desire to indulge in hedonistic pursuits or to attach oneself to the loftiest heights of holiness—either way, the ego is involved. Although in the latter case it is expressed in a constructive and virtuous way, it is still necessarily present.
This is especially the case when the emotion is felt tangibly. An emotion could be present but not felt, for it lies under the surface (cf. Tanya ch. 16). But when an emotion is tangibly felt, there is a strong egotistical component even in the holy emotions, and this is bad. This creates the serious danger that when the emotion is expressed, it may devolve into its counterpart in Kelipah. I will provide a handful of more common examples, with the caveat that this is only a very brief treatment of such behaviors, for this process can manifest itself in numerous forms:
Love: Love involves opening up and transcending limitations for the object of one’s love. So when love of Hashem goes awry, one loses a sense of boundaries, and then openness to and love of Hashem degenerate into dangerous openness and evil love—material indulgence and forbidden pleasures.
For instance, during prayer the Jew becomes aroused with passionate love for Hashem. After prayer, the intense feeling remains, but it becomes expressed in a more intense desire to indulge the senses, e.g., gluttonous eating.
Fear: Fear drives one to create limits and boundaries out of a sense of caution. So when fear of Hashem goes awry, the person becomes so filled with fiery passion or with a sense of self-limitation and inhibition gone too far that he succumbs to the negative emotions of the Bestial Soul. He may break out in sudden anger, sink into depression, inflict pain and torment upon others, or the like.
Another manifestation of this egotistical element of fear of Hashem is when the person shows off his intense desire to avoid sin. Even when he has no conscious desire to do so, and he is simply expressing his genuine emotion of fear of Hashem, the showiness is inappropriate. If his emotions were pure, this self-display would not occur, and this trait stems from his deep-seated condition of spiritual coarseness.
This is an example of what Chassidus calls yenikah lachitzonim, “giving sustenance to negative spiritual energies.” This means that when something holy lacks purity, it unwittingly gives strength to the forces of Kelipah, with often disastrous and tragic results. This expression is also used more broadly to describe anything good and holy that is done in a foolish, inappropriate, or otherwise inadvisable manner and therefore leads to an unfavorable outcome.
In this case, it means that the small element of ego in otherwise worthy and holy feelings is able to be grabbed and used by the evil inclination to feed undesirable emotions.
What is the key to overcoming these dangers? Stay tuned!
Read this essay in full on Scribd here!
Also dedicated by Zvi Rona and family l'ilui nishmas Shlomo ben Pesach, whose yahrtzeit was on 8 Tammuz.
Dedicated in the merit of a speedy release for the captives Yonasan ben Malka (Jonathan Pollard), Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivka (Sholom Rubashkin), Yaakov Yehuda ben Shaindel (Jacob Ostreicher), and Zeva Rochel bas Chaya (Wendy Weiner Runge).
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