Searching for God
Spirituality has become the romantic goal of individuals thirsting in pursuit of deeper religious meaning. And while spirituality means something different to everyone, much of the American Jewish community has come to associate the pursuit of spirituality with the study of our mystical tradition, kabbalah. Kabbalah, it is believed, offers a direct and intimate pathway to God. So, not surprisingly, kabbalah centers (many of them peddling inauthentic and simplistic versions of the true kabbalistic tradition) have sprung up in Jewish communities across the country – attracting large numbers of affiliated as well as non-affiliated Jews, significant numbers of non-Jews, and a handful of superstars like Madonna. What accounts for the popularity of kabbalah today? It is the inviting promise of immediate spiritual fulfillment and unification with a tangible, accessible divinity that attracts such large numbers. What many of these people fail to understand is that according to the sages, kabbalah is one of the final stages of a lifetime devoted to Jewish learning, not the entry point.
Studying kabbalah as a first step into Judaism is like attempting to learn differential calculus without having mastered basic arithmetic. To grasp the essence of kabbalah, one ought first to attain fluency in the entire corpus of Biblical and Rabbinic texts. At best an introduction to kabbalah directs the student to an understanding that learning demands a lifetime of commitment. Studying our sacred texts offers not instant fireworks but small insights gained one by one and growing confidence as a Hebrew word is recognized or a statement of Rashi digested. One should be suspicious of promises of immediate gratification in Jewish spiritual life as in any other serious pursuit.
This week’s parashah, Parashat Re’eh, is instructive in warning us of the pitfalls of seeking immediate gratification. The beginning word of the parashah itself, re’eh, ‘see’ sets the stage for the lessons to be learned from this Torah reading. Our sense of sight is a double-edged sword. While on the one hand sight gives us access to fact and insight, sight can also mislead. The Shema, recited twice daily, warns us against being led astray by our sense of sight – “lo taturu aharei levavkhem v’aharei eineikhem.” Similarly, Moses declares emphatically at the opening of this parashah: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods whom you have not experienced” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).
Midrash Tanhuma Re’eh relates a fascinating midrash sparked by the choice offered by these opening words of the parashah. The author comments:
“A parable of an old man seated on a highway from which there branched two roads, one full of thorns at the beginning but level at the end, and the other level at the beginning but full of thorns at the end. So he sat at the fork in the road and cautioned passers-by, saying, ‘Even though the beginning of this road is full of thorns, follow it, for it will turn level in the end.’ Whoever sensibly heeded the old man and followed that road did get a bit weary at first, to be sure, but went in peace and arrived in peace. Those who did not heed the old man set out easily on the other road but stumbled in the end. So it was with Moses, who explicitly said to Israel, ‘Behold the way of life and the way of death, the blessing and the curse. ‘Therefore choose life that you may live, you and your seed.'”
The midrash is instructive on a number of levels. First, it compares Moses and the teaching of the Torah to a guide – pointing us toward a correct path. Second, it reminds us that God gives us free will to decide which path we will travel. And third and perhaps most fascinating, the midrash compares following the Torah to treading a thorny path. What do the rabbis seek to convey in such a metaphor? Would this attitude not turn many of us off to study and the observance of mitzvot? At its essence, what the rabbis are conveying is that the path to God and search for spirituality is one that eschews immediacy and puts little trust in our sense of vision. The path of Torah is not the easiest or most superficially alluring. One cannot reap the treasures of the tradition without great trust, patience, and dogged diligence, faith, courage, and perhaps a tough skin.
The parashah conveys this message in another way as well. Subsequent to this introductory section, the parashah warns us against avodah zarah, idolatry. We are enjoined to “destroy all the sites at which the nations worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under luxuriant trees. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3). The command to destroy all forms of idolatry was obviously meant to strengthen Israelite belief in one God. The command also grew out of a concern about Israelites being swayed by the devotional sites of other nations. Moses and the Book of Deuteronomy understood the lure of immanent divine presence. Precisely for this reason, the Torah continues “Do not worship the Lord your God in like manner, but look only to the site which the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish his name there. You are to seek and are to come there…” (Deuteronomy 12:4-5). In contrast to idolatrous worship, the Book of Deuteronomy proscribes multiple devotional sites. Worship is to be centralized in one place.
The commentary of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, known as the Sfat Emet (‘The Language of Truth’) teaches the lesson of our parashah beautifully. He remarks,
“Scripture says, (Deuteronomy 12:4) ‘look only to the site which the Lord… will choose’ but this choice was not revealed to them at once; they had to seek it out. The Land of Israel and the Temple depend upon human service, and that is why the sages taught that they require seeking. The same was true in the case of Abraham our Father. When God said to him: ‘Go forth… to the Land that I will show you,’ God did not at once tell him where it was to be. The same was true of the specific site of the Temple; Israel had to seek it out.”
Indeed, neither was Abraham’s destination revealed the moment God spoke with him; nor were the Land of Israel and the Temple given immediately to the Israelites. Only after Abraham and the Israelites invested themselves wholeheartedly in the search for God did their labors come to fruition. Like our ancestors before us, may our sight lead us to greater insight. And may we be blessed with a lifetime of inner strength — continually seeking and sensing God’s Presence along our patient spiritual journeys.
With Wishes for a Shabbat Shalom!,
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz