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Interview: How to Find Purpose in Isolation

by Menachem Posner

Stuck at home in a world shaped by (G-d forbid) illness, isolation, monotony and worry, it’s easy to lose sight of purpose.

To provide much-needed Jewish insight and inspiration in these extraordinarily challenging times, Chabad.org has produced an all-new online course hosted by Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, titled “Your Path to Purpose,” which promises to help viewers find direction in life, no matter the circumstances. Teldon is executive director of the 34 Chabad centers on Long Island, N.Y., and author of the recently-published Eight Paths of Purpose, which serves as the foundation for the four-week course, which begins on Wednesday, April 29.

In a recent interview, the author discusses purpose and what it means in this current uncertain and evolving reality.

Q: With so many of us suddenly out of work, what is the most important step that we can take to relocate our direction?

A: The crucial thing to do is to take ownership of our lives, in particular in this situation. We cannot see ourselves as victims of our circumstances; we must understand that we have a purpose, and this is part of our greater purpose.

We do not understand the reason why this needs to happen, and it doesn’t help us to try to fathom what it may be. We are here to do something. We cannot create the circumstances, but we have the choice to be energetic and focused in responding. This is what the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] teaches us, and it is a basic part of our faith that G-d is running the world. He did not bail out; He is still the pilot. We are not sure why we are going on this journey, but we need to do it right, maintaining our sense of mission and our drive.

The Rebbe told someone, “You don’t have problems. you have challenges.” When we compare the present to the past we see problems. When we look to the future we can view them as challenges.

Q: Assuming that many of us find purpose in helping others, what would you tell someone, perhaps an elderly person who lives alone, who cannot find ways to contribute?

A: As I outline in the book, survival is the first path to purpose. For thousands of years, that itself was the major purpose that consumed most of humankind’s efforts from morning to night. It is only in the last 300 years or so that many of us have the luxury to take our basic needs for granted. Now, that basic purpose comes back to the forefront. We need to deal with it and see it as part of our purpose.

We do not need to climb mountains to fulfill a purpose. There is purpose and importance in the very act of staying home and staying alive, and keeping others safe. If financial security is part of my challenge, then I need to approach it with passion, creativity, purpose and feeling to do what I can to pay for my family’s needs. We need to dig deep within ourselves to find ways to fulfill this purpose in ways we were not capable of in the past.

Our upcoming course on Chabad.org uncovers eight paths to purpose in the face of both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. One of the eight paths is passing tests, and this certainly qualifies as a test. In the process of surmounting this challenge, we access treasures buried deep within ourselves.

Q: What is the purpose of surviving just to survive? Surely, there needs to be more to it than just that!

A: We need to be intact. In order to do all the other things we want to do—and we will do them—your survival must be intact. If you face a health challenge, you need to focus on it. You must be in a healthy position to do anything. Instead of feeling like I am doing nothing, understand that you are doing exactly what you need to do now to protect yourselves and protect others.

There is also the concept of being sameach bechelko, “being happy with one’s lot.” This is the time to put it to the test. This is the reality check. All that we learned about faith and joy are needed now, and will be tested now. We have the opportunity to put them to work, and this is how we will look back on this time and say, “Wow, look what we were able to accomplish!”

There is also the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which is generally and erroneously associated only with social activism, but it really means fixing the world in all its details. If the slice of the world you can fix right now is limited to yourself, then that is important. Right now, your purpose is to be the most positive, productive and faith-filled person you can be.

So if I have a hard time overcoming victimhood—I lost my job, or it’s too noisy at home—know that I cannot fix all circumstances, but I can fix myself, and that is a path to purpose, a very important path.

Q: Who have you observed finding purpose in this pandemic, and how have they impressed you?

A: I am most impressed by the health professionals who have set aside their own needs and safety to help those who need them. There is one doctor who said it so well: “I have been practicing for this moment my entire career.” Through letting his purpose find him, he is finding purpose. Sometimes, we don’t find our purpose; the circumstances of our life create our purpose.

But there are so many others. People are reaching out over social media, teaching courses online, supporting each other. There is so much creativity and so much giving. People all over are expressing their adaptability to find a purpose in the moment.

Purpose doesn’t have to be limited to a high lofty goal—changing the world, developing a wonder cure or championing a political cause. Purpose is accomplished in small increments and tiny parts of life. We have a DNA of purpose within us, which we actualize whenever we can do something meaningful that gives us inner satisfaction, and makes us feel well-balanced and part of something greater than ourselves.

We can especially find purpose when we see that this is something run by G-d. This is what I had to do after my son died at the age of 13 from complications related to cystic fibrosis nearly 30 years ago. This is what I needed to process. I needed to reconcile my intense grief with my job as an emissary of the Rebbe. I needed to figure out how to be an agent of positivity and faith when I was grieving. I knew that we are here to transform the world, but I needed to see how losing my son was part of that picture.

I guess my goal was to have an attitude that can work like a bungee cord, which can stretch towards whatever circumstances we face in life—the good, the bad and the ugly.

In my book, I try to teach this even for someone who does not believe in G-d, but how much truer this is for those who believe in G-d, and that He is an active part of our lives. We can all work to develop the tools to live that type of life.

Q: As a rabbi whose life centers around synagogue and teaching, how have you personally adapted to find purpose?

A: We are self-quarantined. It has been a real change for me. I call our friends and congregants to check in on a regular basis, teach online, do Facebook Live every once in a while. I am also learning more Torah than my previous schedule allowed. I don’t feel like a victim. I keep myself very busy. I am as happy as I can be under the circumstances. With that said, there is a lot of pain out there; it is overwhelming, and that has affected me. You cannot believe so much in a purpose to the point that there is no sensitivity to pain.

It is insensitive and abusive to tell someone that there is purpose to their suffering, in illness or death, which are often beyond our control. Purpose is something we each need to develop within ourselves. My book simply helps people understand how purpose thinks so we can align ourselves to be in sync with our unique purpose. My goal is to provide tools.

It took me 28 years to develop and write this book, and G-d orchestrated things so that it was released on March 22, as the world was shutting down around us.

I could feel down about it, or I could choose to understand that this is the perfect time for such a book. People are dealing with issues that cause them to question or lose purpose, and if I can help them regain that purpose, then I know I am fulfilling my purpose.

Q: If we had one paragraph, what would it be?

A: Unless we are personally facing illness or death, we cannot fall victim to the circumstances that this pandemic has presented. Whatever G-d’s purpose is lies beyond our sight, but our purpose is to dig deep within ourselves and rise to the occasion in the best way we possibly can.

We can do it with the passion that comes from knowing that this is our purpose right here, right now, and then we will come out of this better than we were before.

About the Course: Your Path to Purpose

Set to begin on April 29, the course will run for four consecutive Wednesdays, during which participants will uncover eight paths to purpose in the face of both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances.

The first class will lay the groundwork for some old questions that have suddenly taken on an added layer of urgency: Why am I here? Why do bad things happen to good people? How do I find and fulfill my purpose? The takeaway will include four ways every individual—no matter who and no matter where—can make this world a better, more complete place.

The second segment will provide tools to see good in the challenges and tests of everyday life, to accomplish great things and to fulfill the purpose(s) every individual has been tasked with.

The third installment will focus on how to respond when life challenges us in ways that seem unfair and challenges that appear to be insurmountable.

In the final lesson, Rabbi Teldon will discuss the inner power of Torah and mitzvah observance; the infinite and finite; the power of speech; and how a simple blessing causes a butterfly effect of spiritual elevation in our physical realm. And finally, he will break down the power of repentance in a way that will leave viewers ready to make their mark on this corona world.

“The idea for this course came to us when the coronavirus was a distant event in China,” says Rabbi Zalman Refson, who produced the course, “but it must have been G-d guiding us since there could be no better course for these unprecedented times we are now living through.”

The course is free (a donation is suggested, but not required) to those who register online. As with all Chabad.org courses, handouts, quizzes and other study materials will be provided.

Visit Your Path to Purpose to sign up today for the free four-week online course

The book, ‘Eight Paths of Purpose’ by Rabbi Tuvia Teldon is available at Jewish bookstores and can be purchased online here.

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