January 10th-11th, 2003
8 Shevat, 5763
Sometimes when I’m reading from the Book of Psalms, or when I encounter
one of its immortal verses quoted in some other source, I am struck by
just how remote I am from the noble sentiment being expressed.
Let me qualify that statement somewhat, for one of the strengths of The
Book of Psalms is, indeed, how much every human being with a degree of
spiritual awareness can recognize much of him or herself (and his or her
very own present situation) in its words and emotions. Rather, I mean to
say that I often take note of the fact that the purity, constancy and
intensity of the G-d-consciousness of the Psalmist (usually, King David)
is on a level almost unimaginably more elevated my own.
And I’m someone who prays three times a day, studies Torah, and attempts
to do all the mitzvos incumbent upon me, actions whose very purpose--in
the beautiful words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto--"is to turn us toward
G-d, bring ourselves near to Him, and thus be enlightened by His Presence"
(Derech Hashem: I, 4). Even when I consider my better moments of service
to G-d, when I’m not, say, dreaming about Krispy Kreme doughnuts right in
the middle of davening, I still feel the immense gap between myself and
King David. [Important note relevant to the last comment: the doughnuts in
the Krispy Kreme store on Skidaway drive in Savannah are now kosher, under
supervision! Please don’t let that distract you in davening, however.]
Here are a few verses to serve as an example of what I mean, all of them
expressing the awesome intensity of David’s desire to draw close to G-d.
"As a deer longs for the brooks of water, so does my soul long for You, O
G-d. My soul thirsts for G-d, the living G-d" (42, 2-3). "O G-d: You are
my G-d, I seek You. My soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You…" (63,
Lest we think such enthusiasm, such passion, in serving G-d is only meant
for the few most holy of the generation (and not for us common
doughtnut-scarfers) we should know that this is not at all true. Rambam (Maimonidies)
quotes some of these very same verses of Psalms in describing the love of
G-d (ahavas Hashem) that every single Jew is expected to attain! "Thou
shalt love the Lord, thy G-d, with all thy heart, with all thy soul and
with all thy might" is certainly a verse from the Torah we all know. But
how many of us really take to heart that the love spoken of is meant to
consist of a constant and passionate longing (and commitment) to grow
closer to our Creator, and to do His will? (We tend to think we’re doing
G-d the greatest of favors if we just mumble those words, unfeelingly,
every so often…)
Please don’t think that my comparing myself unfavorably to King David is a
sign of discouragement, a self-deprecating admission of spiritual
mediocrity. Not at all! I’m inspired by King David’s example. What’s more,
although it may not be a sentiment that is so popular in egalitarian
circles, I think that it is absolutely salutary for us to compare
ourselves (at least sometimes) with people indisputably greater than we
are. We need to get a glimpse of levels above and beyond our own…but which
we may well attain someday with effort, and which, in fact, we are
commanded to at least make the attempt to attain.
And if we never attain it, at least we can admire it…and long (in the
spirit of King David himself) to attain it. The great ethical work, Duties
of the Heart (Chovos HaLevavos), tells us as much in outlining the proper
service of G-d. Whatever we can do now (in terms of Torah commandments,
and ethical practices) we should eagerly do, and what we feel we are not
capable of at present--for whatever reason--we should at least long to be
able to fulfill one day. In other words, keep whatever mitzvos you can
(each one is a priceless gem, after all), and look forward to the day--in
fact, pray to Hashem to speedily bring about the day--when you feel ready
to perform more…and eventually, to keep all of them.
Now, then, what does this have to do with the Torah portion at hand? ("As
a deer longs for the brooks of water, so we readers long to know where
he’s going with this parsha sheet…")
The answer is that we can be encouraged by this week’s parsha, because we
see the great (and inspiring) longing the Jewish people had to serve G-d,
to follow Him even into an unknown wilderness. "They baked the dough that
they took out of Egypt into cakes of matzos, for it did not become
leavened, for they were driven from Egypt…and they had not made provisions
for themselves" (12, 39; my emphasis). The Torah specifically notes this
fact that they went out without provisions (Rashi informs us) in order to
declare the glorious faith (emunah) of our forefathers. As the prophet
Jeremiah movingly declares, "Thus said Hashem [speaking of the Jewish
people]: ‘I recall…the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials,
your following Me into the Wilderness, into an unsown land. Israel is holy
to Hashem…" (Jeremiah: 2, 2-3)
The point is: we all have the ability not just to do the commandments
(though that alone is nothing to sneeze at), but to do them with passion
and with a genuine longing to come closer to G-d. We have that great
potential as a spiritual and cultural inheritance from our ancestors. It’s
in us…in our Jewish neshamos (souls).
Take a look at another verse in the parsha, one that seems on its face to
give mundane information utterly irrelevant to our spiritual growth (or
even historical interest). "The people picked up its dough when it had not
yet become leavened, their leftovers bound up in their garments upon their
shoulders" (12, 34; my emphasis) Does anyone need to know the details of
how they carried leftover dough (or the remains of supper) from the night
before, as they left Egypt?!
Rashi cites the Midrash to clarify. The "leftovers" the verse speaks of
were "the leftovers of matzah and the bitter herbs," i.e. the remains of
the previous night’s Passover seder (our very first as a people). The
Torah tells us that the Jews carried them on their shoulders so we should
appreciate just how much they cherished every mitzvah that was being given
them! For even though they had many animals with them that could have done
the schlepping, they wanted to carry the mitzvah objects themselves, for
"they loved the mitzvah."
Even the remains of the mitzvah (for they had already fulfilled the
commandment of matzah and maror the night before) were precious to them,
and to be treated with honor. Even the leftovers were worthy of sufficient
care to be wrapped in their garments, and carried on their shoulders.
The beautiful commentary, S’fas Emes, writes that the verse just quoted
contains a hint of the great mystical importance of our emotional
attachment to the mitzvos we do, to the longing with which we serve the
Almighty. It is the thoughts of love and longing that we have before the
mitzvah, and afterwards, that leave a lasting impression on the neshama
(soul)…apart from the spiritual benefits (and mystical rectifications)
associated with the action of the mitzvah itself. That inner state of mind
(before and after the mitzvah) purifies the soul of a person, and allows
the mitzvah to become "a beautiful garment" for the soul in the world to
come. The greater the love (and longing) we feel for the mitzvah--and
Hashem--the more beautiful (presumably) that garment will be!
This, then, is a deeper meaning hinted at in the verse cited above: our
"leftovers" [i.e. what remains in our hearts and minds after we do a
mitzvah], become "bound up" with our souls, such that they create of the
mitzvos we do glorious and everlasting "garments." If we put in the
thought and the effort, in other words, not only will we be blessed with
designer spiritual garments in the world to come…but we ourselves will be
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (in Path of the Just) confirms this idea that
while the actual performance of the mitzvah is indispensable, it is the
inner state of devotion that is its choicest part (so to speak). "It is
known that what is most preferred in Divine service is desire of the heart
and longing of the soul."
Okay, but what do we do if we’re not there yet, or at least not always?
(What hope is there when we seem to long only for glazed crullers and
coffee?!) Of course, learning Torah is indispensable to awaken the love of
G-d in our hearts…learning it deeply, with all our strength. Maimonides
writes that contemplating His wondrous creations also awakens love and awe
in our hearts for Hashem. (Yesterday, there was a news report of an
anti-clotting agent derived from the saliva of vampire bats that seems to
be more effective for treating stroke patients than the current drugs!
"How great are Your works, O G-d…")
But if we’re just not feeling so enthusiastic at a certain time, Luzzatto
tells us (in a very famous, and psychologically acute passage) to at least
act like we’re enthusiastic.
"The person in whom this longing does not burn as it should would do well
to bestir himself by force of will so that, as a
result, this longing will spring up
in his nature; for outer movements awaken inner ones.
Unquestionably, a person has more control of his
outer than of his inner self, but if he makes
use of what he can control, he will acquire, in consequence, even that
which is not within
the province of his control."
This is not an advertisement for being a full-time faker! But it is an
extremely wise (and time-tested) piece of advice. When we’re not feeling
so into it [and, by the way, the "it" can refer to many things besides,
l’havdil, the service of G-d], act like we’re into it…and soon we will
actually become more into it. If we make the effort to be genuinely
engaged and interested (and even passionate) in serving G-d, we will soon
become more engaged and interested. If we put in the time before (and
after) the performance of a mitzvah—not to mention during the mitzvah
itself—to try to connect our thoughts to G-d, to contemplate His kindness
and greatness and the love He has for each one of us (and for the Jewish
people), then we will surely reap a very great reward…and have a lot more
enjoyment in the process.
Whatever we do for G-d, we can try to do it more passionately.
And then we can justly reward ourselves with a trip to Krispy Kreme (or
your other local kosher bakery)!
May we all become (or long to become…or long to long to become) more like
King David, more like the great passionate lovers of Hashem (our
ancestors) that followed Him out into the desert in this week’s parsha…and
more like the great people that we all have the potential to become.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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