When I started out on my journey through Judaism, it didn’t take me long to realize that goalposts were constantly shifting. It worried me at first, but now I am thankful for every shift that was made.
I’ll explain what I mean: When I first became frum I thought the ‘reverend’ at our local shul was indeed G-d’s representative here on earth. Then it became a rabbi. Later another ‘bigger’ rabbi became that representative. Soon there were no rabbis big enough for me, and I had to leave the country in pursuit of G-d’s real representatives. My quest took me to three different countries, to bigger and better yeshivas and rebbes.
Where was this elusive representative?
The Kotzker Rebbe, I think, may have had an answer for me.
He explains that as soon as you believe you’ve put your finger on something in Judaism, you actually haven’t. It’s a system that is, by its very nature, elusive.
A person must remain, says the Kotzker, in a constant state of tension between looking and finding.
If you think you’ve found truth, you haven’t. If you think you’ve found love, you haven’t. If you think you’ve found anything worthy, you haven’t.
You are closest to these things only when you make it your heartfelt desire to constantly try to find them.
In Hallel we ask; “Open the gates for me…”
Then in the next sentence we say; “This is the gateway…”
In other words the essence or ‘gateway’ to anything meaningful is to remain in a state of trying to open the ‘gate’. If you think you’ve opened it and passed through, you haven’t, because you can’t.
Spirituality is not something one finds, but rather something one searches for.
The Kotzker, rather poignantly, makes this point when he quotes the famous words of Genesis; “And G-d’s spirit hovered over the face of the waters.”
If you’re looking for the spirit even in the waters of Torah (Torah is compared to water, because it flows from a high place to a low one), you will not find it.
Instead, you need to look just above.
-This was the answer I had been seeking for so long. You can’t find G-d in the eyes of a great scholar or in an academy or in a place of worship.
But you may find a little something hovering just above them all.
R Hirsh of Tomashov asked the Kotzker Rebbe; “How can it be that the entire Oral Tradition of the Torah is studied in contravention of the Law?
(The Tomashover is asking a very interesting question. According to tradition, when Moses came down the mountain, he didn’t just bring with him the Ten Commandments. Additionally, he presented the Jewish People with two Torahs. One was the written Torah, as we know it today. The other was an Oral Torah which was never supposed to be written down, ever. It was only to be studied verbally. However with the passage of time and scholastic proficiency declining, the sages began to write these teaching down, fearing that otherwise they might become forgotten. This later became collated into the teachings of what is today known as the Talmud.
The question of the Tomashover, therefore, is a good question. Essentially, are we not transgressing a fundamental imperative that the Oral Law never be written down – and do we not transgress thus, every time we read from the Talmud, or study Gemorah?)
The Kotzker Rebbe answers: “Yes, you would be transgressing, unless you understand that the entire Oral Tradition nothing but a ‘Remez’ (A ‘hint’, alluding to something much greater than what literally meets the eye).”
(Emet ve Emunah p 120, par 5)
In other words, if one studies all the great works of Oral Jewish Law, and thinks he has understood and mastered them in a literal sense alone, he is in fact transgressing on a most fundamental level.
If when he reads how one ox gores another ox, or how long he has to say the Shema, or how to wash his hands before a meal – he thinks that all he is learning about is an ox, a time limit and a water pouring process, then better shouldn’t have studied at all. But if he understands that although the ox, the time limit and the water pouring process are real, they nevertheless also allude to something more ethereal – then he no longer transgresses.
If the Gemorah and Shulchan Aruch are only taken on a simple literal level without some form of ‘hint’ to something deeper and higher, one has missed the point. The irony is that it could take an extremely erudite scholar an entire lifetime of study to successfully miss the point.
And yes, when one looks around at some of the people acting in the name of Torah, one might just be grateful that what we see is not always the essence of our Judaism.
We sometimes need that reassurance that it’s got to be much deeper than that.
As the Kotzker says; “My whole life, I never wanted to serve the same G-d that these people seem comfortable serving.” (Kochav HaShachar p 24, par 1)
[Note; The bold font, in this article, is a translation of the Kotzker Rebbe’s original Hebrew text]