Torah Reading for Week of September 22-28, 2019
“Seek God, Find…”
By Rabbi Haim Ovadia, AJRCA Professor of Talmud & Sephardic Thought
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
On the Ten Days of Penitence, the days between Rosh HaShana and Kippur, God is closer to us. Just as a king or a president might be shut in his residence all year, enabling commoners to see him and talk to him for only a short period, so too God remains aloof and distant all year long, until He grants us a visit during these ten days. This statement always seemed problematic to me because I perceive God as omnipresent and I think that making this analogy borders on anthropomorphism, attributing human traits to God, so I would like to analyze its origins and meaning.
The saying that God is closer to us on these ten days appears in the Talmud (Yevamot 49:2) and is based on a verse in Isaiah (55:6): “Seek God when He is present, call out to Him when He is nearby” –
דרשו ה’ בהמצאו קראוהו בהיותו קרוב – אלו עשרה ימים שבין ראש השנה ליום הכפורים
However, this statement contradicts not only our logic and common sense, but also other biblical sources, for example (Psalms 145:18):
קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת
“God is close to all those who call out to Him, who do it with sincerity”
Or, for example, the following source which uses much stronger words to convey the message that God is not only extremely close to us, but that we cannot escape or break away from this intimacy (Psalms 139:7-14):
אנה אלך מרוחך ואנה מפניך אברח, אם אסק שמים שם אתה ואציע שאול הנך. אשא כנפי שחר אשכון בתחתיות ים, גם שם ידך תנחני…
Where can I run away from Your spirit, escape Your presence? If I scale the sky, there You are and if I descend to the netherworld, I will find You. If I take off on the wings of dawn and dwell in the bottom of the ocean, there too Your hand will guide me…
And as if that contradiction is not enough, I have, as Jews always do, a diametrically opposed question: Isn’t it true that God is never close to us? Didn’t Isaiah say that, in the very same chapter quoted above, only two verses later (55:9)?
כי גבהו שמים מארץ כן גבהו דרכי מדרכיכם ומחשבותי ממחשבותיכם
As the skies are far removed from the earth so are My ways and My thoughts far removed from yours.
And, also in Isaiah (6:3): קדוש, קדוש, קדוש ה’ צבאות – The Lord of Hosts is transcendental, far removed and distinguished.
How do we reconcile the contradicting biblical and rabbinic sources which describe the full gamut of the relationships between us and our Creator, from complete detachment, through narrow windows of encounters to an inextricable intimacy?
In order to solve this mystery I had to start searching who, besides God, would always be with me, no matter where I go or how cleverly I disguise myself, and the answer was very simple: me!
By seeking God we seek ourselves. That is the deepest yet simplest message of Rosh HaShana, Kippur and the whole process of Teshuva – repentance.
You see, we come into this world as pure, innocent creatures, and the actions or reactions of those surrounding us-family, caretakers and friends-influence and shape our personality. If we are lucky enough to have been born in a peaceful country in the developed world, we may believe at a young age that the world is a beautiful place, devoid of evil, except for that bug bite or a lost toy, but as we grow older we intercept signals of cruelty and wickedness such as bullying, foul language, apathy or violence. Some are able to rise above these negative manifestations of the human nature and to craft a wholesome, positive and loving personality, yet others fail to do so, if even in the slightest manner possible.
A research conducted on bullying among school children followed, over several years, kids on a school bus. The researchers focused on a girl who tried to stop bullies from harassing a younger kid, and what they found is quite terrifying in what it reveals about human nature. As years passed by, the girl became less and less involved as she realized that she was not making an impact on the bullies. She gave up and accepted the cruel reality. Her behavior is a paradigm of our response to evil which we think is beyond our control, and too often we hoard our own actions and bad habits under that rubric, arguing that we have tried and failed to change them so we might as well accept and live with them.
Innocence, purity, rejection of evil, and commitment to a life of creativity and activism are all aspects of the Image of God with which we are blessed upon birth, and as we drift away from them, we leave God, and our true self, behind. This is the axis on which the human life oscillates. It starts with the extreme closeness and intimacy with God which young kids possess but only few pure, unadulterated souls manage to maintain as they grow older. On the other extreme, we can find the transcendental and remote God, enclosed in His palatial ivory tower – קדוש קדוש קדוש. But God is only in that state when we don’t seek Him out, at which point He proclaims: “As the skies are far removed from the earth so are My ways and My thoughts far removed from yours.”
Between those two extremes lies the vast expanse of human experience, and as we blaze our path through the vicissitudes of life we find out that God, and our inner pure self, are accessible if we only look for them as the verse quoted above states: “God is truly close to all who seek Him honestly,” and so is our soul. When the psalmist describes in Ps. 139 his attempts to flee God he is actually referring to his efforts to avoid his true call and purpose in life, which culminate in the startling revelation that they are deeply imbedded in his soul and he cannot escape them:
ונפשי יודעת מאד(v. 14), my soul knows very well.
This brings us back to the opening statement by the rabbis, that God is closer to us on the Ten Days of Penitence. This paradoxical, almost heretical statement should be viewed in light of a parallel maxim, found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 5:1):
קראוהו בהיותו קרוב – בבתי כנסיות ובבתי מדרשות
God is closer to us in the Synagogue and Bet HaMidrash
The rabbis are saying that God’s proximity to us is a function of the effort we invest in finding Him, because He is always near and all we have to do is look. Praying with devotion and intention helps us find God and find our identity and self, and so does serious learning which goes beyond the abstract intellectual engagement and uses it to create a life imbued with spirituality and adherence to the Torah. In the same manner, God is more accessible to us on the ten days between Rosh HaShana and Kippur because at that time we are affected by the general atmosphere of selichot, prayers and preparations for the holiday. This idea is beautifully expressed in the special prayer preceding the blowing of the Shofar:
יהי רצון מלפניך שתסיר את כל המסכים המבדילים והחוצצים בינינו
Please, Almighty God, remove the curtains which separate us from You
This prayer describes us and God as situated on two sides of a curtain, very close to each other, yet unable to see each other. The Teshuva, repentance, is the ability to take action, search for meaning and self, thus removing the curtain and being in the presence of God.
This presence is referred to in this week’s Parasha by the word נצבים. Moshe requires the people to always be aware that they are facing God, and that awareness should guide their thoughts, words and actions, from the most sublime – ראשיכם, your heads, to the most mundane -מחוטב עציך ועד שואב מימיך , your basic, everyday provisions. It is that presence that Moshe mentions later in the Parasha, as he explains that closeness to God is in our hearts (Deut. 30:11-14), and now that we understand that our quest for the divine is inseparable from the quest for the humane and human which is hiding deep in our soul, covered by layers of disappointment and neglect, we can truly grasp the meaning of these verses:
כי המצוה הזאת אשר אנכי מצוך היום לא נפלאת היא ממך ולא רחוקה היא
לא בשמים היא לאמר מי יעלה לנו השמימה ויקחה לנו וישמיענו אותה ונעשנה
ולא מעבר לים היא לאמר מי יעבר לנו אל עבר הים וישמיענו אותה ונעשנה
כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו
This commandment which I place before you today (to find God – find yourself) is not inaccessible or far removed from you
Ask not “who shall ascend the heavens to bring it to us?” for it is not in heaven
Ask not “who shall cross the ocean and bring it to us?” for it is not across the ocean
Rather it is very close to you, in your mouth and heart, all you have to do is act upon it…
At this point of our discussion I would like to suggest, based on what I have written so far, an alternative reading to a well-known verse (Deut. 4:29):
ובקשתם משם את ה’ אלקיך ומצאת, כי תדרשנו בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך
You will seek out God from exile and you will find Him as you search with all your heart and soul
If we move the comma just two words ahead, the verse will be interpreted thus:
ובקשתם משם את ה’ אלקיך ומצאת כי תדרשנו, בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך
You will seek out God from exile and as you search Him, you will find Him in your heart and in your soul!
Let us pray and hope that this year the sound of the shofar, simple, pure, powerful, will carry us to the lost realms of our childhood and help us retrieve a sense of the Image of God and our purpose in life, as seen through the eyes of an innocent child who still believes in the innate good nature of people and in his or her power to help themselves and others.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova
Inspiration, contemplation and prayer can be found everywhere. I feel that the following poem is intuitively connected to the discussion in the article. Lyrics and music are by one of my favorite Israeli artists, Yehuda Poliker, and it describes the interaction between the adult self and the hidden child, here referred to as a shadow. I welcome your comments and thoughts.
הצל שלי ואני יצאנו לדרך, השמש עמדה כך בערך, פעם אני מוביל ופעם צל על השביל, עננים התכנסו בשמים, התחילו לרדת טיפות מים, צלי התכנס בתוכי, המשכתי לבדי בדרכי
הרוח טלטל, הפחד טפטף וחלחל, צלי בתוכי מרעיד, מפחיד יותר מתמיד, הוא שואל לאן אתה לוקח, אני משיב לאן אתה בורח, למה תמיד קירות מוגנים, למה צל כשאור בפנים
בוא נעוף רחוק, אתה תהיה לי כנפיים, אל חיבור דמיוני שהיה עד עכשיו בלתי אפשרי, בוא נקפוץ נמריא נעוף, אל קשר הצל והגוף, די להמשיך לברוח אל מה שתמיד רצינו לשכוח
לשכוח את דלתות הבלבול, את הילד שמציץ דרך חור המנעול, בוא נעבור את הגבול אל החופש שהיה כבול, ורק מנגינות מזכירות, שבחוץ אפשר להיות, משוחרר מכל פחד, רק כשהצל ואני ביחד
My shadow and I embarked on a journey, the sun was halfway in the sky, at times I lead and at times the shadow on the path, clouds gathered in the sky, drops of water started rolling, my shadow recoiled in me, I continued my journey alone
The wind trembled, the fear trickled and permeated, my shadow shuddering inside, scarier than ever, he asks: “where are you taking me?” I respond: “where are you fleeing to?” why always protective walls? why shadow when there is light outside?
Let us fly far away, you will be my wings, to an imaginary bond, until now impossible, let us jump, take-off and fly, to the bond of shadow and body, why must we continue escaping, towards what we always wanted to forget
To forget the doors of confusion, the kid peeping through the keyhole, let us cross the border, to the freedom which was in shackles, and only melodies remind that outside you can be released of all fears, only when me and the shadow are together…