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"The Nearness of God Is Good For Me"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital







"The Nearness Of God Is Good For Me"

Translated by Kaeren Fish



The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 33:1) relates:


There is a type of asset (mekach) whose owner is sold together with it. The Holy One said to Israel: I have given you My Torah; I Myself was given over with it, as it were, as it is written: "And they shall take (ve-yikchu) for Me a gift" [understood as, "They shall take Me as a gift"].


This may be compared to a king who had an only daughter. A king from elsewhere came and married her. He wanted to go back to his country and to take his wife with him. The [first] king said to him: "The daughter whom I have given you is my only one. I cannot part with her, nor can I tell you not to take her – after all, she is your wife. But do me this favor: wherever you may go, make me a little chamber that I may live close to you, for I am unable to be separated from my daughter."


Likewise, the Holy One says to Israel: "I have given you the Torah. I am unable to part from it, nor can I tell you not to take it. But wherever you go, make Me a home in which I can live," as it is written, "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8).


Torah study strengthens the bond between man and God; this we learn from the above midrash. In conversations with young people who have difficulty understanding the value of technical halakhic study, such as "an ox that gored a cow," instead of studying spiritual matters, I usually cite this midrash. In this way I tell them that we have no rational explanation for this connection, but we remain faithful to the words of Chazal: "The Holy One said to Israel: I have given you My Torah; I have given Myself together with it, as it were."


            Recently I have begun encountering a reaction to this that differs from the one to which I had become accustomed. This new reaction that stems from the spirit of hitchabrut, "identification" or "connection," that many of the youth have adopted. The essence of this reaction can be formulated as a question, or an expression of bewilderment: "If the Holy One really gave Himself over, as it were, together with the Torah, then why is it that when we learn Gemara we feel no sense of holiness, of something that is beyond mundane reality?"


            Since this reaction has become prevalent, I shall attempt to elaborate on this matter.


            The reaction may be interpreted in a positive or a negative fashion. Ultimately I tend to interpret it in a positive light, but first I wish to speak a bit about the possibility of its negative interpretation. We detect here a note of skepticism as to the veracity of Chazal's description. It is not that they deny Chazal's notion, but rather they may believe that it is irrelevant for people like us. These young people say, "All that may be true when we speak of the Vilna Gaon's Torah study, but it is not true of our Torah study, of the Torah study of our generation, of our friends who are just now entering the Beit Midrash."


            To my mind, this view is mistaken. I shall mention only the words of the Ba'al Shem Tov.  The Gemara (Shabbat 88a) teaches:


"And they stood at the foot of the mountain" (Shemot 19:17) – Rav Avdimi bar Hama said: This teaches that the Holy One held the mountain over them like a cask, and said to them: If you accept the Torah – well and good; if you do not – here will be your burial place.


The famous question is: Why was there a need to threaten them with the mountain? After all, they had already declared, "We shall do and we shall hear!" The Ba'al Shem Tov answers: "This teaches that even when one is not feeling personally inspired by Torah and love of God, he is not free to desist from Torah study, and resembles one who is forced to engage in it, against his will." The Ba'al Shem Tov adds: "And this is a good path for a Jew for times of [spiritual] smallness."


            In other words, at times when a person feels no spiritual elevation, no enthusiasm, no inner motivation, it is good to know that the Torah remains the same Torah, and the Holy One is given over with it, as it were, in every manner of acquisition.


            As I mentioned, the view of these young people is mistaken, but a mistake is not always to be judged as blameworthy. What is blameworthy is when a person thinks that the sole measure in matters of holiness is his own subjective feeling, i.e., whatever I do not feel does not exist. This is a very dangerous approach.  It recalls the following midrash (Tanchuma, Yitro 3):


"And Amalek came and fought against Israel in Refidim" (Shemot 17:8)… How did they weaken them? It is written, "The name of the place was called Masa u-Meriva… saying, 'Is God among us or not?'" (ibid. 7).


            Let me add something. I originally read the previous quote from the Ba'al Shem Tov in a sermon on parashat Yitro by Rav Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University, which he conveyed to me in the wake of several of my sichot that I sent him via one of our yeshiva's oldest alumni, who is friendly with him. The entire sermon is devoted to harsh criticism of those who say that Divine service – such as prayer and the performance of mitzvot – that is not inspired or elevated or enthusiastic, has no significance and contributes nothing to a person. From the style in which it was written I understood that such views, against which Rav Lamm so vehemently protested, were prevalent in the community to which he delivered his sermon. At first, upon reading the sermon, I thought it had been delivered this year. However, I was shocked and relieved to learn that the sermon was given in New York in 1972 – i.e., about thirty years ago. I remembered the words of Kohelet (1:10): "There is a thing concerning which one says, 'See, this is new' – [but] it has been for all the ages that were before us."


            I stated at the outset that the reaction I have been encountering recently could also be interpreted in a positive, praiseworthy manner, and that I am inclined in that direction. As I said, we are not speaking here of any doubt, heaven forbid, as to the truth of Chazal's teachings; it is unquestionably accepted that study of Torah, at all levels, strengthens the bond with the Holy One: "The Holy One said to Israel, I have given my Torah over to you; I was given over with it." And in the reaction – "But we want to feel it, too (in addition to knowing it intellectually)" – the emphasis is on the "too," not on the exclusivity of feeling. Subjective feeling certainly cannot be the measure of the true reality as to our bond with the Holy One. We are encountering in the questioning of these young people an innocent and beautiful wish, that is worthy of appreciation. This wish expresses real pain in the absence of that desired psychological feeling. The fact that this request comes specifically when the emphasis is placed on identification rather than obligation in no way disqualifies the wish itself. The demand to feel something admittedly pertains to Gemara study, but it points to a sense of something lacking in our Divine service.


            The demand for even the slightest feeling of holiness, or at least of religiosity, is therefore authentic. It proves that something is lacking in one's religious, spiritual world. Each generation faces its own questions, trials and problems, and it is only natural to expect that each expects answers that address its specific needs.


            The Chiddushei ha-Rim writes, on the verse "Understand the years of each generation" (Devarim 32:7):


In every generation and in every period there comes from the heavens a new understanding of the Torah, one which is appropriate for the generation.  The tzaddikim in each generation understand the Torah according to what is needed to teach the people of that generation.


            It seems that the "new understanding" suited to our generation has not yet been discovered, and therefore we encounter the demand for feeling, for experience, arising out of the sense that something is lacking. The demand is actually very modest, and the expectations likewise. All in all, the expectation is that in the wake of involvement in Torah study there will also be some kind of awakening of religious feeling, of a feeling that is difficult to define – a sort of "religious feeling that is the precursor of feelings of holiness," in the words of Rav Kook's early writings. In Yiddish it is called "frumkeit." There were trends in Chassidism and in the Mussar movement that opposed the development of this feeling, but it seems that when it comes to the youth, all would agree that it is good and useful, and brings a person to fear of sin. The Ramchal, R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato, says that, "Fear of sin should exist at all times and at every hour, for at every moment one should fear lest he stumble" (Mesillat Yesharim, chapter 24). This contrasts with yirat shamayim, called "awe of God's loftiness" by Ramchal, which comes during Divine service or during prayer.


            But we must know that this feeling is still not yirat shamayim and we dare not let it serve as an alternative to it. Something that is just emotion, with no foundation of intellectual profundity, cannot be yirat shamayim. Indeed, in the introduction to Mesillat Yesharim, Ramchal writes:


Scripture writes (Iyov 28:28), "Indeed ('hen'), fear of God is wisdom," and our Sages explain (Shabbat 31b): "'Hen' means 'one,' for in Greek, one is called hen." For fear (awe) is wisdom and it alone is wisdom, and certainly nothing can be called wisdom if it contains no intellectual depth.


            The Ramchal distinguishes between fear of sin, which is "very easy to attain" and is worthy only of ignoramuses, and awe of God's loftiness, "which is less easy to attain, for it is born only of knowledge and the wisdom to meditate on the loftiness of God and on the lowliness of man. All of this is the result of the intellect, which understands and knows" (chapter 24). But as a prelude to fear of heaven, that emotion is certainly important and effective.


With all the importance of that emotion in our times, honesty demands that I say that for someone who seeks a guide in this area – I am not the right person for him. The batei midrash in which I grew up and was educated, my Rabbis of blessed memory from whom I learned Torah and fear of heaven – they had no need for this emotion, this "enthusiasm" and spiritual uplift. I am unworthy to guide youngsters who seek God and are thirsty for an emotion that I have difficulty defining.


            I am full of admiration and appreciation of the student who wrote in one of our yeshiva's journals about his need to rise in the morning with a desire to become closer to God and to achieve an experience of closeness to Him. I am unable to use this style of speech. I have heard no small number of sichot on the verse, "And for me – the nearness of God is good for me" (Tehillim 73:28), but in the spirit of Mesillat Yesharim (chapter 1):


And upon further examination one sees that true completeness lies only in cleaving to God, and this is what King David said: "And as for me – the nearness of God is good for me" (Tehillim 73:28), and he also says, "One thing I ask of God, that is what I request: that I may dwell in the house of God all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of God…" (ibid. 27:4). For only this is good, and everything else that people consider to be good is all vanity and worthless leading astray. And for a person to achieve this good, it is necessary for him to toil first and exert himself in order to acquire it. In other words, he should attempt to cleave to God by virtue of deeds that lead to this, and they are the mitzvot.


            I do not deny that there is also a possibility of closeness to God as an experience, but I find no hint of it in the words of the Ramchal. The Ramchal speaks of the obligation of exerting oneself to cleave to God through the performance of mitzvot.  We should keep in mind that excessive emphasis on experience as a path to closeness to God can take a person to very distant quarters.


[This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Zakhor 5761 (2001).]