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How to respond to the unknown

How do you respond to the unknown?

Whether it be an upcoming event or experience, the unknown can evoke emotions of fear or worry. Furthermore, there can be levels to the unknown. It could be one level to have a new experience coming up, but where you’ve seen what it will be like and you have some degree of preparation. For example, a person could embark on a new hike yet he knows what the terrain looks like, where he’ll stay, and so forth. Perhaps a greater degree of the unknown is when a person really steps out of what’s familiar. Using a similar example, a person could embark on a new hike, yet the terrain be unfamiliar to him. All he’s been told is general information that there’ll be a place to sleep and food to eat. Additionally, he was given reports which make the adventure sound rough and intense, similar to the mistake of the spies in the Torah portion two weeks ago. One can imagine the possible fear not solely in regard to a new trip, but also from learning little and being informed not-so-positive.

At the beginning of last week I decided I would take on a new experience of going to the Ohel for Shabbat. Each year on the 3rd of Tammuz, thousands of chassidim go to the Ohel to pray by the tomb of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In short, a Rebbe is like the “Moses in each generation,” who’s presence and mission is to nourish the Jewish people with faith. A Rebbe is like the ultimate teacher who empowers his students to access their truest self and to live from that state. In Judaism, the gravesite of great tzaddikim is a very holy place as a level of his or her soul rests at the grave. Being in the presence of a great leader or his grave seems to evoke emotions otherwise hidden beneath the surface of one’s consciousness. The 3rd of Tammuz is the yahrzeit (anniversary of passing) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Additionally, the 3rd of Tammuz is when the Friedeker (previous) Rebbe was released from jail and sentenced to exile in Kostroma in 1927. The 3rd of Tammuz is celebrated because it is the beginning of the process of his liberation 9 days later. The above only enhances the awe of being at the Ohel for a Shabbat.

In preparation for Shabbat last week, I was experiencing so much internal fear and uncertainty, it was overwhelming. Not only was this to be a new experience, but there were so many uncertainties that, to my brain and body, made the upcoming Shabbat appear to be anything but the day of rest and simple being it is. Shabbat is usually a day where elements are prepared ahead of time to allow the Jew to live in the flow, and yet I was hearing how I should be ready to “rough it” for Shabbat at the Ohel… Whatever that means. Regardless of the intentions of others, as I am sure they meant well, I allowed the words to intimidate me and trigger concerns about going.

Nevertheless, the unknown is important to step into and embrace. Otherwise a person is in the familiar, allowing for redundancy and habit. This is not to say the familiar is “bad,” as truly we need constants in our life, such as basic needs; however, for growth and development it is important to, in chassidic terminology “break out of one’s kelim (vessels),” and get out of one’s comfort zone. Practicing being in discomfort is what expands one’s awareness, improves one’s health and adaptability, and actually improves circuitry in the brain.

Approaching the unknown and breaking out of what’s familiar can trigger someone to feel ridden with fear. So much so their sympathetic nervous system turns on and they run, fight, or freeze. Once these emotional reactions occur it can be a challenge to settle them, but this is where learning tools and building awareness within the stress, as our Sages in Shabbat 88b taught to “rejoice in the suffering,” becomes important enabling a person confident and capable in front any challenge and discomfort. In fact, these unknown experiences are challenges or tests from G-d to elevate us. The word for ‘tested’ in Hebrew is Nisah (נסה), which also means elevate. Tests in life elevate our awareness! Also, the root is Nes (נס) which means miracle. As our awareness elevates, we can perceive and appreciate the miracles around us. It is these challenges that, like the role of the Rebbe, wake us up to access the root of our soul. Then, one can access this yechida level of their soul, the highest and truest, even upon returning to the familiar day-to-day life.

The above lesson is what the upcoming chassidic day of 12 Tammuz (July 10/11) represents for all of us. While the 3rd of Tammuz represents the beginning of freedom, the 12th represents the complete freedom the previous Rebbe was granted. Celebrating days like these are not simply for the appreciation of their freedom, but because they shed personal lessons on our life too. As written above, a Rebbe is like a “Moshe of the generation,” and “the head of his generation.” The leaders are likened to the brain of the collective body. As discussed in a footnote in The Basics of Chassidus sourcing the Rebbe, the leader is not separate from his people, like when pain is felt in the body it is “registered primarily in the brain, and only then communicated to the ailing limb.” Thus, freedom for the brain must mean freedom for the whole body.

On the platform to exile in Kastrama, for his involvement in spreading Judaism in communist Russia, the Friedeker Rebbe shared an illuminating teaching of his eventual freedom, which we too can utilize amid the unknowns (of all levels) in our lives that trigger fear.

Commenting on the verse, “May the LORD our God be with us, as He was with our fathers. May He never abandon or forsake us” (1 Kings 8:57-60), the Rebbeim reveal that the Hebrew word for “may,” yehi, can be used to express both a request and certainty. Requesting something and being certain of something are seemingly opposite expressions, as the sicha (talk) addresses. One would seemingly not request something if he was certain of the outcome. Nevertheless, the Friedeker Rebbe taught, “we request from Hashem… that he should be with us, and he will be with us.” A simple example, shared by my Rabbi who I learned with that shabbat at the Ohel, would be playing a basketball game and yet knowing you’re going to win.

In conclusion, there will be many unknown and new experiences that arise in our respective lives, and some more life-altering than others. May this teaching empower you to request and focus on the positive, ideal outcome, and emotionally embrace the certainty of it (or something better) occurring.

How to respond to an upcoming unknown experience:

  1. Set an intention of the ideal experience and focus your mind on that. This is practicing yehi that you’re requesting what you want and then living in certainty that it is happening. Similar to The Torah’s command that “one must view himself as if he left Egypt.” Thus, practice being excited for the known!

  2. Do your best to settle the emotions - by breathing, going on a walk, journaling, and/or meditating - and realize that you are and will be more than okay. Additionally, sometimes we forget we have a body that needs to be tended to with proper sleep and nutrition.

  3. Implement activities in your day that are uncomfortable yet expansive, such as fasting, cold water exposure, hot sauna, exercise, or some thing that is a little scary but you know is good for you.

  4. Learning to be quiet and listen to oneself. The voices from others are data points, but they’re still other’s experiences and opinions. In situations like mentioned above, access your courage to get your own experience. Even though I don’t think it’s necessary to write, it does not include obvious things you don’t need an experience with to learn, like touching a hot stove or doing potentially dangerous drugs.

  5. Think about our forefather Avraham who truly faced the unknown of the Akedah, the binding of his son Isaac. This was a true act of mesiras nefesh, a recognition which he revealed to the world ein od milvado — there is none besides G-d. We are children of Avraham and if he can embark on such a task, we too can embrace the unknown.

  6. Learn from the following quote from Dr. Joe Dispenza:

“Becoming comfortable in the unknown is mastering the moment. Just remember: The unknown will never let you down.
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