The Macro Mission of Life and the Micro Missions of Mitzvahs
You’ve made it to Episode 9 of XL on the Soul!
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As part of our holistic study of the human soul and psyche, we may find it instructive to look at a map depicting the incidence of diagnosed depression around the world (worldpopulationreview.com):
Notice that there are some countries that make perfect sense, e.g. Ukraine, ranking #1 for highest rate of depression at 6.3% of their population.
On the other hand, there are a whole slew of countries plagued by poverty, disease and violence (e.g. many of those in subsaharan Africa) which are ranked among those with the lowest rates of depression.
This is no doubt due in part to under-diagnosis and underreporting of mental illness in these countries, which we’ll address in a moment, but in the meantime, it should certainly make us think…
Note, as well, that the United States is tied, together with Estonia and Australia, for 2nd highest rate of depression at 5.9%. Our instinctive ways of thinking about happiness and wellbeing make this statistic nearly impossible to understand — the US is near the top of the list in GDP per capita. Shouldn’t wealth and wellbeing go hand in hand?
Perhaps a more telling metric of national wellbeing is that the US boasts more immigrants per year than any other country in the world. Of our population of 330 million people, some 40 million have crossed oceans and international borders searching for a better life. If you tally up all migrants on planet Earth, the US immigrant population accounts for a whopping 20% of them (Pew).
How can the US be one of the most coveted destinations in the world for those seeking greener pastures, and yet it is also conspicuously orange-looking in the above map???1
If you’re skeptical (as you should be) in light of the underreporting issue we mentioned above, what if we could compare two cultures that use the same health system within the same national borders? We can do this by comparing the incidence of depression in native residents in the US to the incidence in recent immigrants.
Consider this disturbing irony: in one 2020 study of 100,000+ adults over a six year time span, immigrants to the United States, despite all of the adversity they faced before coming, and continue to face after arriving, are 11% less likely to suffer from depression than their US-born counterparts (nih.gov). And the longer they’re here, and the more they assimilate into American culture, the more they show signs of the same malaise.2
To me, all of these numbers very much challenge our primitive notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Why do some of the wealthiest and freest countries in the world rank among the most emotionally troubled?
To be clear:
We are not making a case against wealth and freedom.
We are questioning whether we are building a society that knows what to do with them.
Towards a More Complete Psychology
At the risk of oversimplifying complex psychological and sociological phenomena, I’d like to propose that there is one gigantic factor that profoundly impacts the way human beings feel when they wake up in the morning, and when they put their heads down on their pillows after a long day. This factor is their sense of their life’s purpose or the lack thereof.
In poor, dangerous, war-torn countries, and amongst new immigrants struggling to “make it” in a new country, the sense of purpose tends to be more clear. People have to make sure they and their loved ones are fed, healthy and safe.
Their days are full of hustle, but their hustle is purposeful. They shed blood, sweat and tears, but every drop is meaningful.
While I can’t imagine any of us envy the lifestyle of people who live under these conditions, we may at times envy their sense of focus and drive on any given day.
Do we know what we’re living for once our bellies our full?
Any psychology that ignores the essential human desire to live aligned with his or her purpose in the world will ultimately perpetuate the illnesses it set out to cure.3
The goal, of course, cannot be to preserve the urgency of hand-to-mouth living, but can we preserve this same sense of clarity of purpose?
The history of modern psychology has shown us that the majesty of human psyche cannot be shoved into a narrow model of pleasure-seeking and self-interest alone.
The soul seeks more from life.
Not for itself.
Hopefully, this has been coming to light for you as we’ve been peeling away the layers of the self in this series. The deeper we go into the self, the more selfless and giving the self reveals itself to be.
What we will see today is that even more than spirituality, the human spirit is looking to fulfill its purpose for which it was sent here in the first place.
Up & Down
In the last episode of XL, we discovered two of the most fundamental drives in the human spirit:
the craving for “pure spirituality” that looks upwards and away from the practical, physical world, and
the even deeper desire to dive headlong down and into this physical world in order to accomplish meaningful things in it and with it.
This first aspect is the part of us that is spiritually escapist. We seek meaning away from the mundane — in philosophy, in prayer, in meditation, in spiritual experience, in seclusion from others.
This isn’t bad or good per se. It just is. The soul needs a break from a world that tends to obscures what it knows to be the deep truths of life.
In this way, the soul is like a dancing flame in its constant aspiration to rise heavenward.
However, there is an almost opposite and ultimately stronger drive of the soul for spiritual actualization.
The soul wants to…
Make a difference.
Nurture the growth of others.
In this way, the soul is like water whose motion is always downwards, nourishing life wherever it goes.
So, although we all have a desire for pure spirituality, like an arrow within us that points upwards away from the world — there is yet another arrow within us that points downwards and out into the world.
Is one of these two arrows in the conceptual Star of David of Judaism dominant?
This question brings us to the central Jewish notion of mitzvah, generally translated as “commandment,” as in “God’s commandments to us.”4
By far, the most visible feature of Judaism are the mitzvot.5 As such, they should serve as some clue as to what Judaism is about.
The mitzvot are these specific actions that we are here to positively do like honoring our parents, visiting the sick, giving charity, lighting shabbat candles, and certain actions that we’re supposed to refrain from doing like speaking negatively about people, eating non-kosher food, etc (here’s a full list if you’re curious).
All of this begs a crucial question:
If your soul is, in essence, perfect, as we saw in Episode 7, why does it wish to occupy itself with mundane tasks like getting your mom a tea when she asks, and being careful about what foods you put in your mouth?
What’s it looking for that it doesn’t already possess?
The Divine Will that Courses Through the Universe
When I was studying in Jerusalem, I befriended a really great guy named Eden while he was on a tour of Israel. Having practically zero background in Judaism and essentially zero cultural baggage, he was curious to learn more, and asked me if he could crash in my dorm for the week — it was Chanukah.
On the first night, as the sun set, and the time to light arrived, all of the students in the building busily lit their menorahs in the dining hall. I invited Eden to light his own menorah if he was interested. He was, but was a little embarrassed about not knowing exactly what to say or do. I told him that it was pretty straightforward. He had to light a candle called the “shamash candle,” say the blessings, and then immediately light the candle on the rightmost slot of the menorah. He asked me to please translate the blessing that he should say, so I did:
“How abundantly present are you Adonai Our God King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments (mitzvot), and commanded us to light the Chanukah candle.”
Eden, who is a wonderfully expressive person, looked at me genuinely puzzled, “God commanded us to light this candle?”
His shock spurred me to to try to take to heart myself this simple but cosmic claim.
“Um…yeah,” I responded. Eden raised an eyebrow, but proceeded.
Slowly, with reverence, Eden ignited the shamash candle, approached the menorah with trepidation, whispered to himself the blessings with rhythmic, deliberate intention as he read them word-by-word from the prayer book, and lit the candle for the first night of Chanukah.
I will never forget the look on Eden’s candlelit face in that moment.
His eyes widened. He smiled with his whole body. And then, was literally taken aback, running both of his hands through his hair, exclaimed out loud, “WHOOOA!”
“THAT WAS INSANE!” he screamed, stumbling over to me, with his hand on my shoulder looking for validation.
What’s insane is how quickly one becomes jaded, I thought to myself.
His reaction was much more appropriate than my own lackadaisical fulfillment of the Divine Will.
A mitzvah shouldn’t be a mere ritual, and certainly not some socialized habit.
A mitzvah is nothing less than fulfilling the same Will that brought the universe into being.
If this sounds nuts to you — good. It means you’re actually taking the words seriously. This is precisely what a mitzvah is. It is an opportunity to give expression to the deepest sense we all have that we are here to do something with our lives — not just in the grand sense on the time scale of our lifetimes — but on any given day, and in any given moment.
We all live with a muffled sense of mission. All of us feel that we should be doing something significant with our time, but rarely know with clarity what this looks like. When that sense of mission can burst through, and finds expression in an action that we know with confidence to be significant, no matter how small, the joy is cosmic.
None of us chose to be born. Our true choices as human beings begin many years after we were brought into this world by forces beyond ourselves. This is why as long as we’ve been conscious, we all feel mysteriously chosen to be here.
The universe doesn’t appear to have chosen to be here either. And yet it is. There’s an intentionality that courses through the world, a chosen-ness, which I believe we all feel in the depths of our psyches.6
And although the depths of our souls may be perfect, this perfection is only theoretical. This is why the arrow of the universe seems to inexorably pull us out of our theoretical inner world out into the outer practical world to make our inner goodness real.
When we train ourselves to honor our parents as they deserve, when we practice biting our tongue from telling over a totally pointless piece of gossip, when re-educate ourselves to pause our ceaseless work in order to stop, and live fully in the sacred present of Shabbat — when we do these activities, our instinctive lower, visceral self thanks us for doing what it would have never figured out to do on its own, and our higher self rejoices that it emerged from its ivory tower and came to help the lower self who so desperately needed it. In this way, the soul (“neshama”) goes from being potentially good to being actually good.
Going from theory to practice literally makes all the difference in the world.
It is our purpose in being here.
To truly be good.
But Why So Many Mitzvahs?
Let’s say all of this about fulfilling our purpose makes sense, but why do there have to be SO MANY mitzvahs? Why is Judaism so complicated??
And what does this teach us about our souls and ourselves?
Hope to see you again soon to continue to the conversation.
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These numbers reflect, on some level, relative incidence of mental illness, but they are generally understood to lowball the true rates due to under-diagnosis. As I pointed out, it is acknowledged that these numbers are even further skewed down in developing countries due to under-diagnosis there.
This diagram below, using 2017 data of mental health & substance abuse related deaths around the world, raises the same question even more poignantly and perhaps more concretely — notice the same surprising pattern (ourworldindata.org):
If you find this surprising and interesting, I highly recommend that you read chapter 9 of Harvard researcher Richard Weissbourd’s book The Parents We Mean to Be. In it, he sites a number of studies that indicate that:
“first-generation immigrant children, across almost every immigrant group, are, on average, fairing better than their American-born counterparts on almost every school, health, mental health, and moral measure…a stark fact is that as English proficiency grows, school performance drops: the two are inversely related” (p. 179).
Founder of the modern Positive Psychology movement Professor Martin Seligman told my friend and student of his that the part of his model that still requires the most study is the “M” for Meaning in the acronym for wellbeing:
The more correct but cumbersome translation is “the connection forged between the One Who Wills and the one who fulfills that Will.”
Mitzvot (מצוות) is the plural form of “mitzvah” (מצוה).
It shouldn’t surprise us that belief in God is correlated with sense of purpose in life: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jssr.12046