Vertigo is a term that jet pilots use to describe spatial disorientation. When a pilot approaches the sound barrier, strange things can occur, especially on a clear-day’s flight over water. The pilot is liable to become disoriented, and to confuse the blue of the sea with the blue of the sky, and vice versa. Some pilots become dizzy and others elated; in any event, vertigo can make a pilot think that up is down and down is up.
The laws of the material world apply to the spiritual world as well. The best of the Baalei Tshuva resemble jet pilots: Thirsty for Hashem and His Torah, they cruise at supersonic spiritual speeds. A good BT’s takeoff in Yiddishkeit – let’s say his or her initial thrust and climb in spiritual altitude – would make even a strong FFB’s head spin. But, as in jet flight, the faster a BT ascends and cruises, the more critical any tiny mistake in judgment or spiritual navigation becomes.
Today, jet pilots undergo rigid training to prevent vertigo. They learn to trust their avionics – those sophisticated flight instruments that show a pilot the course, speed, altitude, and position of the airplane’s axes in relation to the earth, including a screen that displays an artificial horizon – and not to trust their own judgment. That way, pilots can know whether they’re “up” or “down”.
Our sages require us to attach ourselves to a qualified and competent rav and spiritual guide. For an aspiring BT, a good personal rav is probably the single most important assurance of success. None of us can be objective about ourselves; we are all subject to “spiritual” vertigo, and oftentimes can’t know whether we’re up or down. The more we stubbornly trust our own judgment, the more we’re liable to make serious mistakes in life. Spiritual vertigo can lead to miserable crackups.
On too many occasions, I’ve witnessed how a BT cruising at spiritual Mach 2 without the guidance of a rav leaves his or her spouse grounded on the runway. I’ve seen the tragedy of a BT trying to learn 16 hours of Gemorra a day – also without the guidance of an experienced spiritual mentor – and then nosedive into a burnout. Under the illusions of spiritual vertigo, a BT is liable to think that he or she is headed for the clouds when in reality the opposite is true.
In my own personal experience, I would hate to imagine the outcome of my forming decisions without the guidance of my own rav and spiritual guide, the Melitzer Rebbe shlit’a. To paraphrase an old Abraham Lincoln expression, one who acts as one’s own spiritual guide has a fool for a pupil.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslev writes (Sichos HaRan, 68), that a person can become completely disoriented in this world – literally insane – without a spiritual guide. A trusty, knowledgeable, and saintly spiritual guide can keep anyone on an even keel and a steady path of success that avoids dangerous “plateuing” and spiritual burn-out.
If you don’t as yet have a spiritual guide, keep your eyes open for an individual of intelligence, modesty, wisdom, faith, and impeccable character. Make sure that your prospective spiritual guide has a rav and guide of his own. If you have access to such a person and trust his judgment, then chances are that you’ve found the right spiritual guide for you. May Hashem protect us all from spiritual vertigo, help us navigate this world safely, and redeem us speedily and in our days, amen.