Saying Goodbye to Your Old G-d
Sometimes, Being Close Means Feeling Far
Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein in the loving memory of a young soul Alta Shula Swerdlov daughter of Rabbi Yossi and Hindel Swerdlov and in the merit of Yetta Alta Shula, “Aliya,” Schottenstein
The Endless Quest
It was Simchat Torah, and the disciples of Rabbi Mendel of Horodok, many of whom had journeyed for weeks to spend the joyous festival with their Rebbe, were awaiting his entrance to the synagogue for the recital of the Atah Hor’eisa verses and the hakafot procession. Yet the Rebbe did not appear. Hours passed, and still Rabbi Mendel was secluded in his room.
Finally, they approached Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who had studied with Rabbi Mendel in Mezeritch under the tutelage of the Great Maggid.(1) Perhaps Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who was revered and loved by Rabbi Mendel, would attempt what no other chassid would dare: enter the Rebbe’s room and ask him to join his anxiously awaiting followers.
When Rabbi Schneur Zalman entered Rabbi Mendel’s study, he found the chassidic master deeply engrossed in his thoughts. “The chassidim await you,” said Rabbi Schneur Zalman. “Why don’t you join them for the hakafot?”
“There are a hundred meanings to the verse Atah Hor’eisa,” cried Rabbi Mendel, “And I do not yet fully understand them all. I cannot possibly come out to recite the verse without a proper comprehension of its significance!”
“Rebbe!” said Rabbi Schneur Zalman. “When you will reach a full comprehension of the hundred meanings of Atah Hor’eisa, you will discover another hundred meanings you have yet to comprehend…”
“You are right,” said Rabbi Mendel, rising from his seat. “Come, let us go to hakafot.”
Throwing Out the Old?
An interesting verse in this week’s second portion, Bechokosei, reads (2), “You will eat the very old [grain] and you will remove the old to make way for the new.”
A homiletic interpretation of the verse understands “the very old” to symbolize G-d, who has “been around” since time immemorial and who represents eternity. One ought to eat and satiate one’s hunger with “the very old” G-d (3).
Yet there comes a time in our life when we need to “remove the old to make way for the new.” We should never get stuck in our own definitions of G-d. We must be ready to abandon our old perception of G-d for the sake of a more real and mature relationship with ultimate reality.
A little while ago, a man approached me one morning in the synagogue and expressed his anguish over the fact that he does not experience G-d anymore in his life.
“When I originally became a baal-teshuvah (returnee to Jewish observance) many years ago,” he said, “I felt an intimate relationship with G-d. I sensed His truth and His depth.
“Today,” the man continued, “I am still a practicing Jew. I put on teffilin each morning, I pray three times a day, I keep the Sabbath and I don’t eat shrimp. But G-d is absent from my life.
“How do I become a baal-teshuvah again?” the Jew wondered.
As I looked up at his face, I noticed a tear in his eye. I thought that he may be far better off than many people born and raised as observant Jews who have never shed a tear over G-d’s absence from their lives. Many of us are even unaware of the fact that there exists a possibility to enjoy a genuine personal relationship with Hashem.
I attempted to identify with this Jew’s struggle, sharing my feelings on the matter. As we concluded our conversation, I noticed on the table a 200-year-old Chassidic work titled “Noam Elimelech.” I opened the book, authored by the 18th century Chassidic sage Rabbi Elimelech of Liszhensk (4), and randomly arrived at the Torah portion of this week, Bechukosai.
In his commentary to the first verse of the portion, the Chassidic master discusses an apparent lack of grammatical accuracy in the blessings that we recite daily. “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d,” we say, “Who has sanctified us with His commandments.”
Why do we begin the blessing by addressing G-d in second person, “Blessed are You,” and then conclude it by addressing Him in third person, “Who has sanctified us with His commandments.”?
In the beginning of one’s spiritual journey, writes the saintly author, when first discovering G-d in one’s life, Hashem seems very near. At that special moment of rediscovery, you feel that you “have G-d,” that you grasp His depth, His truth, His grace. You and G-d are like pals. You cry to Him, you laugh with Him, you are vulnerable in His midst. Like one who is reunited with a best friend not seen in many years, you declare: “G-d! You’re awesome.”
But as you continue to climb the ladder of spiritual sensitivity, you come to discover how remote G-d really is from you. You come to learn how inaccessible and elusive He is, how unfathomable and indescribable the Divine reality is.
Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely when the feeling of “I have G-d” withers away and is replaced by the sense of a void that you are actually closest to Him (5). When you mature in your spiritual life you begin to sense something of His infinity, and who among us could ever feel that he has a grasp over infinity?
Far But Near
It is this state of mind that the Prophet Isaiah is addressing when he says (6), “Peace, peace to him who is far and near, and I will heal him.” How can one be both “far and near” simultaneously?
The Chassidic master Rabbi Elimelech answers that Isaiah is referring to the Jew who feels that he is far, but in truth he is near. The very fact the he senses his remoteness is indicative of his closeness. If he truly were to be distant, he would actually feel close!
Therefore, when the first Jew Abraham is taking his son Isaac to the Akeida (the binding of Isaac) atop the sacred Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem, the Torah tells us (6) that “On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. Abraham said to his attendants, ‘You stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder, we will prostrate ourselves and then return to you.'”
Why did Abraham take his attendants along if he was to leave them behind anyway?
Because it was only Abraham who “looked up and saw the place from afar.” Only Abraham realized how remote he still was from the Divine mountain. His attendants, on the other hand, actually thought that the place was near. At that moment, Abraham became aware of the vast sea separating his spiritual state from theirs; he knew that they were not ready yet to accompany him on his journey toward G-d.
For thus is the paradox of one’s spiritual process. The closer you become, the further you must become. It is to this Jew, harboring deep frustration, that G-d sent forth His promise: “I will heal he who is far and near.”
1) Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Horodok (also called Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk) and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi were both disciples of the Great Maggid, Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch, the second leader of the Chassidic movement. Following the Maggid’s passing in 1772, Rabbi Schneur Zalman regarded Rabbi Mendel as his master and mentor. In 1777, Rabbi Mendel led a group of more than 300 chassidim to settle in the Holy Land. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was originally part of the group, but Rabbi Mendel convinced him to remain behind and assume the leadership of the chassidic community in White Russia and Lithuania. This story and footnotes I copied from: http://www.meaningfullife.com/torah/holidays/1d/The_Endless_Quest.php 2) Leviticus 26:10. 3) See Bas Ayin on Bechukosei (by Chassidic master Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avrutch. Rabbi Avraham passed away in 1841 in Sefad.) 4) Passed away in 1787. Rabbi Elimelech was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich and was considered to be one of the greatest tzaddikim of his generation. 5) This point is also quoted in the name of the Baal Shem Tov (Kesser Shem Tov section 39.) Cf. Tanya section 3 chapter ? 6) Isaiah 57:19. 7) Genesis 22:4-5.