The following essay was my entry to the My Life Chassidus Applied Essay Contest:
How should one approach the problem of when Judaism appears unexciting? At times we are inspired and excited to be Jews and Chassidim, but at other times even simple tasks seem impossible.
As an artist with artist friends, I hear the word ‘Inspiration’ thrown around a lot, with a capital I. Inspiration is described as the process of being stimulated to do or feel something. It’s a time when creativity flows freely, without restraint. It is generally a happy time, a productive time. It’s a burst of energy for the writer to be prolific and for the painter to paint, for the singer/composer to come up with moving melodies. It’s an important state of being for a Chassid also, who can find enjoyment in his learning while inspired. He appreciates doing Mitzvos. His Davening is enthusiastic, and he sees significance in his actions.
The trouble is, inspiration doesn’t last forever. In most cases it doesn’t last for more than a short time. When I’m inspired, it feels like I can do anything today. When I’m not, I can’t even imagine how I did anything in the past. Today? Out of the question. Life resumes as it was before inspiration hit, and nothing has changed. Creative people go back to staring at blank notebooks and empty canvases. Chassidim see their Avodah as robotic and dull. There’s no life in learning, or Davening to Hashem. It’s not exciting, and worse, it can be painful.
Just doing what we are meant to do can be very difficult. Lack of inspiration is often times coupled with feelings of worthlessness that rise up and assault us. The artist says, “I have no real talent. All my earlier work was chance, a fluke.” Or worse, it was contrived, it was faked to look like the real thing. The artist so strongly identifies with his creative side that the struggle of creativity becomes superimposed and is now a struggle for his entire identity. The same is true for the Chassid. If I’ve experienced excitement about my Davening in the past, but today I don’t, was it ever authentic?
Of course, it’s more tempting to procrastinate and wait for the feeling of inspiration to come back to you. The work isn’t so easy now, but when inspiration hits, it will be.And it might even work. There’s a certain surety that the warm feeling will be back, fizzling inside you, laughing and trying to spill itself out onto a fresh canvas. Oh, I’ll get so much done when I’m inspired. This might also be the reason some authors will tell you their book “took five years to write”. Some people only write when they’re in the mood.
But Judaism doesn’t work like that; it’s not about being “in the mood”. Being Jewish is about the here and now – inspired or not, here I come. So for the Chasid, this time of uninspired Judaism can be particularly difficult. Because Judaism is not a religion. It’s a way of life. It’s an identity. There are halachos for literally every aspect of our lives, from the second we wake up until the time we go to sleep. There’s always a mitzvah to perform, and if there are even a few moments to spare, we should be learning Torah. The question becomes, how can I learn and Daven throughout the day when I feel dead and my actions feel dry, my concentration is not there and I’m overall very… uninspired?
Why is this inspiration so temporary? Isn’t doing what you love and believe in supposed to fill you with a sense of joy and happiness? Aren’t we supposed to love serving God and always find it exciting?
The solution can be found in a Ma’amer by the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, who explains the story written in Navi (Malachim II). As follows:
A woman came to the prophet Elisha.
“My husband has been taken from me by his debtors. All I have left is my two sons, and soon, they’ll be taken from me, too.”
Elisha asked, “What do you have in your house?”
She answered, “A small jar of oil.”
Elisha responded, “Collect all the empty vessels in your house. Borrow from your neighbors, as many as possible. Fill them with your jar of oil.”
The woman returned home and did as instructed.
The oil flowed miraculously into all the vessels, and stopped pouring only after the last vessel was filled.
The Rebbe’s interpretation is this:
“The woman represents the Jewish people; Elisha the prophet represents Hashem. The husband that was taken away is the fire of passion (Ishi = husband, Aish = flame). The two sons correspond to the two forces of Love and Fear.
The Jew is asking of Hashem, my passion is gone, and all I have left are my love and fear. But I can’t hold on for that much longer. Help.
The response is to gather and fill empty vessels. Borrow from friends and mentors. What we need to do is create space for that inspiration. Because the oil is coming. The oil of passion, inspiration and enthusiasm.
The Rebbe is explaining that we need to push on regardless, despite the lack of inspiration. It’s not cold, robotic Judaism, even if it looks like it. It’s a gathering of vessels that will soon be filled. It’s a call to action despite the lack of energy, no matter how unexcited we feel.
To explain further: Consider a river that dries up, leaving a parched, dry ravine behind. If you knew there was a flood coming, wouldn’t you invest time and effort in preparation to channel the water? True, it’s hot and dry and your throat is parched and there’s sweat running down your back, but if you built a dam to contain the water, or better yet, a mill that converted the water into some other energy, you can benefit from the water long after the initial flood. It takes hard work – uninspired work – but it will reap benefit for a long time afterwards.
Curing the writer’s block is no easy task, but it can be fixed by constant writing, specifically during the dry spells when you don’t feel inspired. Artists need to force themselves to keep writing, painting or singing even when they can’t feel the message they’re trying to convey. It’s awful; I’ve been there. Terrible words stare back at you on the paper: ugly, mutilated clichés, child’s prose and bad spelling. It’s forced, and it hurts coming out. But exercise helps, especially free writing: the writing that is done without restraint or expectation, paying no attention to grammar or personal insecurities. You have to ignore the bad thoughts telling you all sorts of unhelpful, negative things. And then, when you’re in a state of inspiration, you will be much more proficient in your deeds.
So too, a Chassid should force himself to learn even when he isn’t in the mood. Be Jewish even when it isn’t fun. You can go back over the bad drafts and dead pages of Gemara later, fixing mistakes, editing lyrics, breathing the fiery flame of passion into the coldness. It’s important to keep your spirits up during the drought, and it’s the awareness that helps: knowing that uninspired Judaism is just a temporary state of being, if only we can channel the energy that’s coming.
When you spend time learning Gemara when everything is dark and you feel jaded, burnt out, as if your life is crashing around you because this sugya is so monotonous and you question why you’re even learning it anyway, what you’re doing is building strong walls to contain the flash flood of inspiration when it comes. When you force yourself to say every word in Davening, it isn’t a worthless endeavor. You aren’t being inauthentic, even if it doesn’t feel natural. And you weren’t faking it in the past, either. You aren’t a hypocrite. When you look back at your hard work from the uninspired days, you’ll see clearly how it all contributed to the war effort.
This is what we have to do when we lack inspiration. We know it’s on its way, so let us be ready for it. We have to prepare by gathering the empty jugs of uninspired learning and Davening. We need to be confident in the knowledge that they will be filled with oil, with light and life and passion once more.
For the behind the scenes of this essay, click here.