Monday, 02 December 2019

Addiction, Infinity and Divine Service

by Yaakov from GYE (See all authors)

There’s a famous expression in recovery “Once is too much, and a thousand times is never enough”. This is a profound insight into the nature of addiction, which basically means that giving in even once will send the addict back into the painful cycle of craving and dependency. Addicts also know that even if they would give in a thousand times, it would never be enough. Addiction isn’t satisfied until it has robbed its victims of everything precious in life.

Addiction is sometimes described as the flip side of divine service. Addicts have conditioned themselves to serve the god of their addiction with real messiras nefesh, no matter the cost to the quality of their lives and to the lives of those around them. From their behavior we can learn how one should strive to serve G-d, with the same selfless devotion, no matter the cost.

In the same vein, I believe we can apply the powerful insight above of “Once is too much, and a thousand times is never enough” to divine service as well. There are two common misconceptions that people encounter when trying to grow. One is the feeling of false humility before doing a Mitzva or learning Torah. We may think, “What’s the use, I’m so far from Hashem anyway - who am I fooling?” or perhaps, “My little Mitzva is so insignificant compared to the divine service of the great Tzadikim, Hashem surely won’t appreciate it, it’s basically meaningless!”.

The other misconception, particularly after doing mitzvos or learning Torah, is the feeling of pride, “Wow, look at me, I’m serving G-d so well! I’m surely greater than most people!”

I have seen brought down in the sefarim that it is because of these two misconceptions that we ask Hashem in davening, והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו, “Save us from the Satan, both from behind us and from in front of us”. The Yetzer Hara tries to convince us not to do mitzvos beforehand by saying, “What’s the use of your pathetic avodah?” And after the fact, he tries to get us to feel haughty so that we lose the divine favor we incurred.

Flipping around the expression “Once is too much, and a thousand times is never enough” and applying it to our attitude in divine service can be tremendously helpful in saving us from these damaging thoughts that hold so many people back from real progress and spiritual growth.

Let’s think about it for a moment. Why is it that “once is too much” in addiction? If the addict has been clean for a long while and they give in just a little bit, is it really that bad? The answer is yes, addicts know deep down that giving in even a little bit will send them right back into the never-ending cycle of addiction.

In Avodas Hashem as well, no matter how far we may be from Hashem or how low we may perceive our spiritual state as being, even one small mitzvah has the power to once again connect us to Hashem and throw us back into the sweet cycle of divine service.

And “a thousand times is never enough” is the way we should view ourselves after the fact, if haughtiness begins to enter our hearts. The kindness that Hashem does with us is so boundless and His greatness is so infinite, that no matter how much we could ever do, could never really be called “enough”.

And precisely for this reason, even one small mitzvah is tremendous. Because when it comes to the infinite, a little-bit and a whole-lot are pretty much the same. Mathematically speaking, the number ten and the number ten thousand are both the same percentage of infinity. So in the same way G-d appreciates the divine service of the greatest Tzadikim, He also appreciates even the smallest good deed of the smallest person. Because for an infinite G-d, serving Him a thousand times is never enough and hence, even once is HUGE.

If we keep this precious expression in mind, we can be saved from the deviousness of the Yetzer Hara who attempts to prevent us from doing mitzvos beforehand by emphasizing our pitiful spiritual state in our eyes, and from unhealthy feelings of pride after the mitzvah, which greatly undermines the purity and merit of the act.

I’d like to suggest that this attitude can also be applied to the infinite wisdom of the Torah. Often we can feel that the Torah is so vast and so deep that our little bit of learning is basically meaningless. This is especially so when we learn about the giants of the past like Moshe Rabbeinu, Reb Shimon Bar Yochai and the Arizal, who comprehended all the secrets of creation! But if we recognize that divine wisdom is infinite by its very nature, we can appreciate that “a thousand times is never enough”, no one can ever reach an understanding of G-d, and hence, even a little bit of divine knowledge is tremendously precious!

Perhaps this is what our Sages meant when they said “Both he who learns a lot and he who learns a little are equal, as long as one focuses his heart to Heaven”. Heaven is infinite in nature and therefore, whether we are serving an infinite G-d or learning His infinite wisdom, both a little and a lot are the same percentage of infinity and are therefore infinitely precious!