The Joy of Service
Hasidism is the great mystical movement that swept through Eastern Europe in the late eighteenth century and captured the hearts and minds of nearly half the Jewish population in a matter of decades.
Its spiritual founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, often referred to as the Besht, was a great scholar and mystic. He preached a message of hope and inspiration, calling on Jews of different social and educational backgrounds to come closer to God through mystical contemplation and by retaining an awareness of him throughout the day.
There is a genre of Hasidic literature known as hanhagot, which are short lists of spiritual practices or instructions created by the masters for their disciples. Practical in tone, they are designed to enable the devotee to apply the Hasidic ideals to daily life. In fact, the Hasidic masters would often advise their disciples to copy these instructions, carry them in their pockets, and to read them throughout the day whenever they required spiritual guidance or balance. An example of this, taking the form of a poem, can be found at the end of this article.
A defining feature of early Hasidism is the importance it placed upon joyful religious service, not unlike the positive approach Baba Ji encourages us to adopt. High ideals – something to look up to and work towards – are very necessary on the path of spirituality, yet they can sometimes lead an introspective disciple to measure himself too frequently, or perhaps too harshly, against the ideal and thereby perceive himself to be failing. Disciples may also castigate themselves when they acknowledge that they could, in fact, make more effort than they do or that they have compromised on a promise that was too sacred to treat casually. Whatever the cause, Hasidic masters insisted that excessive guilt depletes spiritual energy and has a considerable negative impact on those trying to follow a religious path. They advised their disciples to focus on the present moment and to show repentance by serving God according to the very best of their abilities.
Today, when we turn to advice from Baba Ji or the writings of Maharaj Charan Singh about dealing with feelings of guilt and overcoming our weaknesses, we find they provide similar counsel. In Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, for example, Maharaj Charan Singh explains that guilt is not a solution to whatever misdeeds have been committed; instead one should focus on improving oneself:
One must look ahead and make best use of the present so that we don’t repeat such mistakes again.… carrying guilt on your conscience doesn’t solve any problem at all.
Even though a guilty conscience is not to be encouraged, it does signify that one is aware of weaknesses that need to be overcome and, as the embodiment of perfection, grace and generosity, Maharaj Ji focuses on our capacity for transformation:
Satsangis probably try to analyse themselves too much, thinking that they have too many bad qualities in them.… I always say that when we are conscious of our faults, half the battle is won because then we begin to do something about them. But when we are unaware of our faults, we delude ourselves into thinking that what we are doing is right, which causes us to travel still further in the opposite direction. We should therefore be grateful that the Lord’s grace is enabling us to avoid these pitfalls and travel straight on the path leading back to him.
So, when we think we are failing, going backwards rather than forwards, we would do well to follow the advice of the Masters, focusing on the joy associated with our search for the Shabd and grateful that we are on this journey at all. The following verse is a rendering of Hasidic teaching from the Hanhagot:
Always be joyous,
for sadness is a great obstacle to serving God.
Even if you sin, heaven forbid,
do not let it stop you from serving God.
Limit your feelings of sadness and regret
to the particular transgression you have committed,
and then return to rejoice in the blessed Creator.
After all, you have repented
and you have no intention of returning to this foolishness again.
And even if you know that you are not fulfilling
every aspect of a particular mitzvah [commandment],
do not let this upset you;
rather, think of the blessed Creator
- He who judges hearts and intentions –
for he knows that you want to serve him in the best possible way.
Strengthen yourself in the Creator,
for Scripture states:
“It is time to act for the Lord”.
As rendered by Or Rose with Ebn Leader in God in All Moments