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Archive for August 19th, 2007

Man Seeking G-d or G-d Seeking Man?

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on August 19, 2007

If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

“It is particularly in the so called wisdom literature, such as the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, as well as the Book of Psalms, that the spontaneity of the Biblical man found its expression.

The concern for God continued throughout the ages, and in order to understand Judaism we must inquire about the way and the spirit of that concern in post-Biblical Jewish history as well. Two sources of religious thinking are given us: memory (tradition) and personal insight. We must rely on our memory and we must strive for fresh insight. We hear from tradition, we also understand through our own seeking. The prophets appeal to the spiritual power in man: “Know, therefore, this day, and day it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other” (Deuteronomy 4 :39). The psalmist calls on us “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (34:9) How does one know? How does one taste?
An allusion to the need for every man’s own quest for God was seen homiletically in the Song of the Red Sea:

“This is my God, and I will glorify Him;
The God of my father, and I will exalt Him.”
(Exodus 15:2)

Out of his own insight a person must first arrive at the understanding: This is my God, and l will glorify Rim, and subsequently he will attain the realization that He is the God of my father, and l will exalt Him.

Burnt offerings, sacrifices are an important part of Biblical piety. And yet, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, understanding (knowledge) of God, rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6). There is away that leads to understanding. “Ye will seek the Lord thy God, and thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and all thy soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29; Jeremiah 29:13).
“If a man says to you, l have laboured and not found, do not believe him. If he says, l have not labored but still have found, do not believe him. If he says, l have laboured and found, you may believe him.” It is true that in seeking Him we are assisted by Him.
But the initiative and intensity of our seeking are within our power. “If thou call for understanding, and lift up thy voice for discernment; if thou seek her as silver and search for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the awe and fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” “Everything is within the power of heaven except the awe and fear of heaven.”

The Bible has several words for the act of seeking God (darash, bakkesh, shahar). In some passages these words are used in the sense of inquiring after His will and precepts (Psalms 119:45, 94, 155).

“And I will walk at ease, for I have sought Thy precepts;”
“I am Thine, save me; for I have sought Thy precepts.”
“Salvation is far from the wicked; for they seek not Thy statutes.”

Yet, in other passages these words mean more than the act of asking a question, the aim of which is to elicit information. It means addressing oneself directly to God with the aim of getting close to Him; it involves a desire for experience rather than a search for information. Seeking Him includes the fact of keeping His commandments, but it goes beyond it. “Seek ye the Lord and His strength, seek His face continually” (Psalms 105:4). Indeed, to pray does not only mean to seek help, it also means to seek Him.
However, the same words cannot be said in regard to God. The commandment “is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it”(Deuteronomy 30:11-14). “Am I a God near at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off?” (Jeremiah 23:23). Indeed, there are moments when He is near and may be found, and there are moments when He is far and hiding Himself from man. “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6).* Not all of the people of the Bible are satisfied with awareness of God’s power and presence. There are those “that seek Him, that seek Thy face O God of Jacob” (Psalms 24:6). “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after, that I may abide in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord” (Psalms 27:4). “As for me, the nearness of God is my good” (Psalms 73:28) At Sinai, according to legend, Israel was not content to receive the divine words “through an intermediary. They said to Moses, “We want to hear the words of our King from Himself. . . We want to see our King.”

The craving for God has never subsided in the Jewish soul. Despite the warning, “Thou canst not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live” (Exodus 32:20), there were many who persisted in a yearning, to which Jehuda Halevi gave unforgettable utterance. “To see the face of my King is my sole desire. I fear none but Him; I revere only Him. Would that I might see Him in a dream! I would continue to sleep for all eternity. Would that I might behold His face within my heart! Mine eyes would never ask to look at anything else.”
“As a hart yearns for the streams of water, so does my soul yearn for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God, when shall I come and see the face of the Lord?” (Psalms 42:2f)
Like Moses who pleaded, “Show me, I pray, Thy glory” (Exodus 33:18), the Psalmist prays:
“O God, Thou art my God, earnestly will I seek Thee. My soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee, In a dry and weary land, where no water is.
So have I looked for Thee in the sanctuary, To see Thy strength and Thy glory.”
(Psalms 63:2-3)
“With my soul have I desired Thee in the night; Yea with my spirit within me have I sought Thee earnestly.” (Isaiah 26:9)

“In those days, and in that time, saith the Lord, The children of Israel shall come, They and the children of Judah together; They shall go on their way weeping And shall seek the Lord their God.” (Jeremiah 50:4)

God is waiting for man to seek Him. “The Lord looked forth from heaven upon the children of man, to see if there were any man of understanding that sought Him” (Psalms 14 :2). “In Thy behalf my heart hath said: ‘Seek ye My face'” (Psalms 27:8). And on the Days of Awe we recall in humility: “Until the day of man’s death Thou waitest for him” to return.

On the other hand, one is always faced with the possibility of failure, with the danger of being trapped in lofts without light, without motion. There are those “whose doings will not suffer them to return unto their God. . . . With their flocks and with their herds they shall go to seek Him, but they shall not find Him; He hath withdrawn Himself from them” (Hosea 5:4, 6).
We must go on trying to return, to care for Him, to seek Him. It is an exceptional act of divine grace that those who do not care for Him should suddenly discover that they are near Him. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for Me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek Me. I said: ‘Here am I, here am I,’ unto a nation that did riot call on My name” (Isaiah 65:1).
In his last words, David warned his son Solomon: “If thou seek Him, He will be found of thee; but if thou forsake Him, He will cast thee off for ever” (I Chronicles 28:9). From Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “God in Search of Man”

My Friend Yael inadvertently pointed me to Abraham Joshua Heschel, which I remembered I had a book by in my growing Jewish Library. Now, I have a feeling that “Heavenly Torah” is a little more exiting than “God in Search of Man” – but I still like the chapter quoted above (well it’s part of a chapter…) because it shows the other side of Judaism – the individual connection between G-d and Man, while another favorite of mine, Leibowitz, deals exclusively with the practical halachaic side of G-d – Man.

From The Velveteen Rabbi:

The master key is the broken heart

Once the Baal Shem Tov commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram’s-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Ha-Shanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and laid the slip of paper in his bosom. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram’s-horn without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them.

Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: “Lo, in the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, whith which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram’s-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a man truthfully breaks his heart before God, he can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the King above all Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”     (– Or Yesharim)

My wife reminded me today, that instead of being obssessed with saying the correct blessings and doing the tallit and tefillin thingy with the right concentration in the right way etc, so I miss connecting with G-d and what I am doing, I need to remember that to G-d the Aleph-Bet from a willing heart is just as good as all the details in place.


Posted in Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish Identity, Observance, Practice, Seeking G-d, Torah | 4 Comments »

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