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Working With Chocolate
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

Every soul has its particular Avoda, in the areas of intellect and emotions, in accordance with that soul's nature and character. - The Rebbe, HaYom Yom, for 8 Nissan.

 
 

Very late one Thursday night, Reid, a relative newcomer to town, slipped in through the side door of a certain residential dwelling, took the narrow stairs down into the basement, turned the handle gently and pushed.
 
He found what he was looking for. Seated at the head of a long, well-laden table of half-consumed refreshments and a dozen men listening, a bearded man in a dark suit and black fedora was talking.
 
The conversation was about "avoida," an Ashkenazi-Hebraic term for divine service. What do we have to do in the face of temptation? Avoida. What is the best way to focus our energies and talents? Avoida. How can I transform my nature and improve? Avoida.
 
Jewish though he was, Reid was an all-American boy from the deep South, so the nuances of Ashkenazi Hebrew were lost on him. Finally however, he got the point. "Oh, I get it now. You're talking about serving the Creator."
 
"So what did you think we were talking about for the past hour?"
 
"Actually I thought you were talking about women."
 
"What... Why?"
 
"Well, every time you said "Avoida" I thought you were actually saying, "Avoid her."
 
It was pretty funny at the time (yes, it really did happen - I was there), but there is more to it as well. Our relationship with the One Above is likened to a marriage. And our affair with worldly pleasures is compared to... well, an affair.[1] How, one may ask, shall we deal with things we want but shouldn't have? Just as we would with the neighbor's wife - Avoida - Avoid her.
 
Chabad ideology takes this concept to a whole new level. Two hundred years ago, the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad, said "What is forbidden is forbidden, and what is permitted is unnecessary."[2] But why would someone want to be so ascetic and strict? Doesn't it contradict what the Jerusalem Talmud says, that "On the day of judgment, every person who saw choice food and did not partake will be held accountable for his actions."?[3] Besides, aren't those Chabad folk all into good food and drink, singing and dancing, nice homes and clothes, working in the world and using modern technology?
 
Looking deeper, there is really no contradiction here. The idea is not so much what we enjoy, but how and why. Conscious consumerism Chabad-style says, yes, enjoy your material blessings, but focus on the divine purpose they fulfill, not the physical desire they satisfy.[4] It sounds simple but that's deceptive. If you think you've digested the concept already, think about eating chocolate for the sake of heaven and not for the sake of yum.[5]
 
It's reminiscent of the plain Jew who watched the great Tzadik (saintly person) eat an apple and think to himself, "How is he greater than me? He eats an apple, I eat an apple." The Tzadik, sensing his doubts, said, "You know the difference between you and I? You make a blessing because you want an apple. I eat an apple because I want a blessing." 
 
But even this is not yet the true standard of divine service, "Avoda." The absolute rejection of materialistic values is merely a preparation. Ultimate "Avoda" is transforming the physical itself into a channel for the Divine.
 
This of course takes lots of discipline - a quality that many of us feel is beyond us. How many of us have tried dieting again and again? And that's about eating properly for one's own sake. How much harder is it to eat for G-d's? Is there any practical way to achieve this? The answer is yes - Chassidus - the study and implementation of chassidic teachings.
 
What exactly is Chassidus? We are not the first to ask. In Vienna, during the winter of 1903, Sigmud Freud interviewed the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe about Chassidus, asking "What manner of scholarly discipline is this?"
 
The Rebbe said, "The discipline of Chassidus requires that the brain advise the heart what the person should want, and the heart implement in the person's life that which the brain understands."
 
Freud then asked, "How do you do this? Are not the head and the heart two continents separated by a vast sea?"
 
The Rebbe responded, "The task is to build a bridge that will span these two continents, or at least to connect them with telephone lines and electric wires so that the light of the mind should reach the heart as well."[6]
 
The Rebbe's bridge is the goal. It means truly moving the concept from theoretical to practical, from spiritual to physical. Lines of communication are the next best thing. With communication, the idea influences the emotions from afar but does not truly transfer and transform.
 
Some maintain that such radical transformation of human nature is simply unachievable, but if that is your belief, it has just gone up in smoke - literally (well almost literally).
 
A new study of smokers shows not only how our thoughts can change our habits, but how they can change the physical properties of the brain itself. The research, directed by a Yale psychiatry professor, shows how just thinking about the damage smoking does to ones health creates changes in two separate but related brain centers. Mentally trashing tobacco boosts processing in the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for reasoning and behavioral inhibition, and simultaneously slows it down in the striatum, a key area for reward seeking and drug craving.[7]
 
The practical result is that cravings go down and quitting gets easier. A healthier, physically rewired you emerges, all with the power of thought.
 
There's a message for us here that is pertinent to our times. Many people say the world is what it is and there's no chance it can get any better. The truth is they have said the same about human nature, yet we see that was wrong. We used to think that the brain had a fixed number of cells and circuits and that was that. Only recently have we discovered that the brain can be rewired at any stage in life, just by exercising it.
 
The same is true of the world at large. Without work, of course things don't change, but we've been working on the world for a long time. Change is happening. The Alter Rebbe talks about Avoda and says that the future redemption is being made today, and how? Through working in Torah and mitzvos.
 
It took penetrating rays of energy to see how the physical workings of the brain respond to the ephemeral workings of thought. Similarly, by the penetrating light of Chassidus we can better understand the physical workings of the world and see how it responds to our spiritual efforts in Avoda. Moshiach is unfolding already. It's as certain a process as mind over matter. And that fact has already unfolded.

[1] See for instance, the third paragraph of the Shema prayer, Bemidbar 15:39 as interpreted in Tractate Berachot 12b.

[2] HaYom Yom, 25 Adar Sheini.

[3] Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 48b.

[4] HaYom Yom, 5 Menachem Av.

[5] Of course eating chocolate for the sake of a higher purpose can be done in many ways: Saving it for Shabbos when delicacies are a mitzvah, rewarding someone, expressing love or appreciation, eating a portion so your guest will not be shy to partake. Here we speak of celebrating the joy in G-d who gave the chocolate I am eating exceeding the joy I have in the physical flavor.

[6] Based on a diary entry made by the present Lubavitcher Rebbe, on 24 May 1932.

[7] Our Brain Can Be Taught to Control Cravings, New Researcher Finds. ScienceDaily (Aug. 3, 2010)

 
Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada. To contact, read more or to book him for a talk, visit
www.arniegotfryd.com or call 416-858-9868

 

 


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