Thought Of The Week
Purpose and Wisdom
Purpose in life is an elusive idea. Often when I have spoken to the avowedly unspiritual, they tell me that they don't need any spiritual purpose in life because there is a much more tangible purpose. That more tangible purpose is, often as not, "my family", which usually means caring for their spouse and children. Caring for one's family, however, is far more than paying bills, having food ready and the general upkeep of the house.
A simple and very worldly life purpose such as "caring for my family" turns out to be quite complex, upon examination. I have recently completed a second series of my "parenting the soul of the child course" and several things have become very clear. First, there is a vast literature on raising children. Second, that literature is characterized by sharp disagreement. Third, all parents make mistakes, some of them quite serious, either from confusion or from weakness, and when they try to make use of that vast literature, they rarely have in mind a standard for knowing which approach is right for their child.
I see the same problem in caring for one's spouse. People sometimes have quite awful theories of what it means to be a good marriage partner. It turns out that people often don't quite know how to "care for my family", at least at any deeper level. Properly "caring for my family" requires insight and virtue. We find ourselves back into the world of spirit, into the problem of human fallibility, and the need for wisdom.
I think that one of the greatest contributions of Chasidic psychology is its teaching us that mundane problems such as "caring for my family" are precisely the places where spirituality and the Divine are brought to bear. In being truly present to another person we must muster up the courage, insight, empathy, and principles to do the truest thing that the moment requires. In this sense, Chasidic psychology is similar to existentialist schools of psychology, which teach of basic mystery of the human condition, the profound role of decision and responsibility, a sense that we can't rely on convention to discover truth. One person may need a shoulder to cry on, and another might need to be told to toughen up and get back into the struggle.
For our study session this Shabbat, I would like to review the fundamentals of Chasidic psychology I have covered so far, and also compare it to some of the major themes of existentialist psychology. I will then apply these themes to the study of our Torah portion, Chukkat.
Rabbi Mordecai Finley