It’s easy to serve God when things are going great. But how can we continue serving God on the down?
Four years’ ago, when I was going through the bleakest, most difficult period of my whole life, I was sitting in Uman, by Rebbe Nachman’s tomb, and pleading for some guidance and help on how I could actually continue serving God ‘on the down’.
I opened up a Likutey Moharan, and I got to the lesson where it was talking about how sometimes, you have to throw yourself into all types of mud and filth in your service of Hashem.
(I don’t remember what number that lesson was, sorry.)
Those words made a huge impact on me, because at that time I was neck-high in trying to clarify a number of very difficult issues in my own life and relationships, and it was very murky, yucky stuff.
A little while back, I was talking to someone about how easy it is to serve God ‘on the up’ – when we’re full of spiritual inspiration, and emuna, and mitzvot, and yearning to be a better Jew. And how difficult it is, conversely, to serve God ‘on the down’, when we’re fully of cynicism, and apathy, and questions, and yearnings to go and see the latest James Bond.
Yet, Rebbe Nachman teaches that we can’t have one without the other.
The up is ‘running’, and the down is ‘returning’, when we have to consolidate, hunker down and regain our strength for our next period of ‘running’.
Often, many of us make the mistake of thinking we can only serve Hashem ‘on the up’ – and that’s when we get into massive problems. Because when we aren’t honest about where we’re really holding, and the spiritual ‘downs’ that we’re really experiencing – every single one of us! – then we get stuck with a Hobson’s choice.
Either, we can continue to pretend, to ourselves and others, that we only ever experience spirituals ‘ups’ in life, or we end up having to leave our devotions, and our striving for spiritual growth and we sink back into materialism and spirituality, because we’re finding it so hard to accept the need to also serve God ‘on the downs’.
If we take the first route, we’ll end up becoming fake caricatures of ourselves, externally very pious looking and spouting all the right ideas, but internally completely disconnected from the reality of who we really are, and what we really need to be working on.
If we take the second route, we stagnate spiritually, and we never really attain inner peace, because we know that we took the short road that’s really the very long road, and that’s not leading us to where we need to be going in life.
So what’s the answer?
Rebbe Nachman explains very clearly:
You have to serve God on the downs with just as much enthusiasm as you serve Him on the ups.
Tachlis, if you have a bad habit of talking (or writing…) lashon hara, for example, then at least use that to serve Hashem. Know that at the level you’re really holding at spiritually, you’re going to be talking badly about someone. So at least, talk badly about the people who are genuinely rashaim (evildoers).
Ditto for talking to members of the opposite sex. If you’re going to act in such an untznius way in the first place – and tachlis you are, because that’s where you’re really holding right now – then at least talk about things like emuna, and serving Hashem.
I know, it all sounds so paradoxical, doesn’t it?
But from my own personal experiences, this seems to be the only way to not got sucked into huge feelings of despair about how imperfectly I’m actually serving God.
To say ‘don’t speak lashon hara EVER!!!!’ is clearly impossible, at least for people like me who are really not holding at that level. So then, I have to turn my ‘down’ towards the service of Hashem, somehow, and find some ‘good’ way of talking badly about other people, so that I’m still serving God on the down, too.
I know, it’s completely head-wrecking isn’t it?
But, it’s also the only way to keep serving Hashem at this point in creation, because wherever you look, whatever you do, you’re going to fall somehow. This person is going to fall into Facebook, that one into feeling jealous over someone else’s nicer house, that one into a big, fat pizza pie – what can we do? Except learn how to serve God on the down.
Except, at least make sure that the pizza is glatt kosher and heartily blessed. Or, that if we’re on Facebook we’re at least trying to share some Torah or chizzuk. (I still don’t know how to ‘raise up’ feeling jealous about other people’s nicer houses. Any ideas, wise readers?)
In the meantime, we’re wallowing around down here in the dirt and the muck, and it’s not such a nice feeling. But if we’re doing it for Hashem, somehow – or least, wanting to do it for Hashem – then maybe, that changes everything?
Maybe, that’s how we finally get to the stage of serving God from love, lishma, just for its own sake, and not just because we’re quaking in our boots from not doing the mitzvot right.
King David tells us, if he builds his home in the Heavens, there God is. And if he crashes down to the depths of gehinnom – there God still is.
We just have to open our eyes and see Him.
You might also like these articles: