An 18th century Rabbi Menacham Nachum of Chernobyl wrote in “Maor Eynayim”:
It is known that the secret of the Egyptian exile is that awareness was in exile… One must be aware that there is a blessed Creator, but they (the Israelites in Egypt) weren’t aware of the blessed Creator… After the departure from Egypt, awareness was brought out of exile… Nevertheless, there is still exile.”
This statement can bring up a lot of questions.
For one thing, what does the phrase “awareness of God” mean? And if it is possible to be aware of God and not aware of God, when in our lives are we aware and not aware of Him? And even more intriguing: Why are we not able to remain aware of God’s presence at all times?
When I asked these questions at our congregation as I was delivering the drash, the responses were meaningful and heartfelt.
A teenage girl shared the experience of collecting $3,000 to support those who had suffered in the drought in Sudan. She was aware of God the most, she said, when she was helping people.
A woman said said that God had definitely been there when, at the age of 45, she conceived her only child.
A man said that he is aware of God’s presence every morning when he wakes up and says “modeh ani lefanencha” — a prayer of gratitude for the gift of the “return of our breath” back to us after a night’s sleep to enable us to live a new day.
The truth is, we all have experienced exquisite moments of awareness of God’s presence. And it’s also true that these moments tend to be fleeting.
We are constantly oscillating between awareness and lack of awareness, and that is a normal and very human state of being. Like the angels in the two choirs in Shabbat morning’s two Amidas, we sway between knowing for sure that God’s presence fills the whole world and then losing that certainty and asking – “Where is God’s presence?” – only to assert again that it is everywhere.
The oscillation between these two states is the essence of the spiritual path.
Judaism’s Quest for Awareness
Our liturgy and sacred texts are filled with references to the quest for that awareness. And there is a reason for that. As Rabbi Menacham Nachum of Chernobyl wrote:
In truth, awareness is the main thing that brings one to complete awe and love, when you are aware and have faith that the whole earth is full of His Glory, and there is no place empty of Him. He is the delight of all delights, and the life force of the living.
The early Hasidim paid a tremendous amount of attention to remaining in awareness of God’s presence every moment of their lives. They wanted to attach, to “glue” themselves to God in a state of being that they called deveikut – from the root d.b.k. – to glue. And to that end, they developed numerous tools to stay in that awareness.
But this quest for awareness is far more ancient than that. King David filled the Psalms with his longing to be in God’s presence. When he felt as if God had abandoned him, he was seized with fear, calling on Him to come back.
Psalm 23 has the famous concluding line: v’shavti bveit Adonai l’orekh yamim — “and I will dwell in God’s house all the days of my life” — a statement of hope and intention to remain in the awareness of God’s presence at all times.
Psalm 118 refers to being in a tight spot and calling out to God from there. “When they closed in all around me, I called on your saving presence,” it says. This last phrase is repeated three times in the psalm.
And going back even further, we know of Moshe’s deep longing to see and know God.
And then, of course, there is the well-known Shiviti mantra: shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid — “I have set God before me at all times.”
But what is the big deal about awareness? Why should we bother striving for it?
There are many ways to answer this question. One of the most intriguing answers belongs to Rabbi Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidut, who taught that “the moment you turn from Hashem, immediately you are worshiping other gods.”
Many find this answer too provocative or too demanding. And yet, it is worth considering even if we are not consciously dedicating our entire days to the pursuit of the continuous connection to the Divine, the way the Besht and his disciples did.
What does the great Besht really mean when he talks about turning away from Hashem? And why does he say that the moment it happens, we are worshiping other gods? Couldn’t we simply be engaged in something else for a moment? Surely getting engrossed in reading a book or watching a TV program wouldn’t turn us into idol-worshipers?
Rabbi Menacham Nachum of Chernobyl illuminates the issue by saying that the essence of awareness is
to be aware that all of one’s powers and life force are the blessed Creator; that for Him, everything is possible, and He is the master of all powers; it is the Holy One who stirs up all of one’s powers. The moment one TURNS from this awareness one is WORSHIPING OTHER GODS — powers other than the blessed Creator.
In other words, to be aware of God is to be aware that everything we do — from the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we close them at night — is available to us only thanks to God continually operating in our lives.
The moment we cease to be aware of this, we fall into the illusion that we can just as well be operating on our own, independent of God, as if our lives could be possible without that energizing power co-creating with us at every moment. And as soon as we fall into that illusion, we begin to worship the idea, very happily supported by our ego, that everything in this life is up to us.
And so after our brief moments of awareness, we automatically, without giving it a moment’s thought, turn to other “gods”: the god of work; the god of ambition, the god of social media, the god of information, the god of fantasy, the god of politics, the god of sex, the god of food, the god of physical body, the god of creativity, the god of entertainment.
Some of these gods seem wonderful. After all, what’s wrong with being creative or politically involved? And yet, as we turn to each of our various goals, objectives and pursuits, we forget that all of that – including we ourselves – are part of something larger.
We lose our awareness of the wholeness of it all — and most important, the unifying force behind it all. And then we are back in a world where everything seems to consist of multiple, unconnected pieces, in which we labor under the illusion that we are in charge of everything within our small circle of endeavor.
As we begin to worship all those gods in turn, we forget our moments of awareness.
And that is when we are back in exile. In Chasidic view, exile is the place of being separate from God.
What Does This Exile Feel Like?
Shalom Noach Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe who lived in 1911-2002, wrote something in Netivot Shalom that resonates really well with our anxiety-ridden lives of today:
The root of the matter is very simple. The force of evil and adversity is that which contracts one’s heart and mind to be focused exclusively on one’s own small world. He is irritated by anything that threatens to disturb his own small-minded state. His healing is to be found by leaving this state of mind, by seeing the wide open spaces filled and sustained by the Holy One’s Light. When he experiences being elevated from this contracted state, he will see the brightness of the world, and all that disturbed him previously – the jealousy, lust, and craving for honor – will become insignificant.
This is the idea of exile and redemption. Exile is the state of confinement and spiritual and emotional contraction; redemption is the state of not being limited by borders.
And this seems like a very valuable guidepost.
Any time we feel contracted emotionally – when we feel angry or jealous or hurt or vengeful or insulted or prideful – we are in exile.
But what if we are not very experienced at identifying our emotional states? How do we know when we are contracted emotionally?
Any time we are contracted spiritually or emotionally, we will also contract physically. The body may feel tense. We may feel smaller. We may feel anxious and hyperactive. Or we may feel lacking in strength and wanting to crawl into bed and hide from the world.
Emotional contraction and the physical contraction resulting from it can feel different for everyone. And this is the essence of our personal spiritual work — to get to know those states, to become aware of them, as it were.
Because unless we can learn to identify, “diagnose” these states, we cannot find the right tools to help return us to wholeness, expansiveness and open-heartedness — the states that characterize the awareness of God’s presence and of our being part of it.
Which Tools to Use?
Judaism offers a tremendous number of tools to build our awareness of God and to help us feel like we are always in God’s presence. Here are just a few:
- When in doubt, bless. With every blessing, we connect even the most mundane act of life to God. With blessings comes the awareness that the only natural state of being is that of gratitude – for every breath we breathe, for every moment we are alive, for every cell in our body that continues to function. And gratitude is a foundation of an ongoing relationship with God.
- Perform a mitzvah. Many of us think of mitzvoth as a burden. And yet, with each mitzvah, we are creating an opportunity to experience God’s presence in our lives. It’s as if we stepping forward to invite God to make that step too and meet us in the middle.
- Prayers and Psalms. As referenced above, we have abundant language in our liturgy to refer to God’s living presence. Find a prayer or a Psalm that resonates with you. Read it, repeat it, let the words become a part of you. Allow yourself to be changed by them.
- Connect with meaningful rituals. Judaism is rich in rituals. The greatest of them is Shabbat – an entire day dedicated to returning to wholeness. In these 25 hours, there are countless opportunities to build awareness of God’s presence – from being with your family and community in a meaningful way, to prayer, to singing, to holy intimacy with your spouse, to holy rest. Find a ritual that’s meaningful for you and help it draw you back into the state of wholeness.
- Meditate. One of the best tools to build awareness is meditation. Judaism has a great history and tradition and of meditative prayer – from prophetic experiences, to Moses’ sojourning on the mountain, to Kabbalistic approaches. It is another way to build up our ability to remain in the awareness of God’s presence at all times.
The Daily Task of Spiritual Liberation
Even though at Pesach we recall the story of liberation that took place thousands of years ago, our spiritual liberation is a daily task – a task of daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute building up of the awareness of God’s presence in our lives.
May this Passover celebration help us strengthen our ability to remain in that awareness for longer and longer periods of time. May we merit the ability to remain in a state of wholeness and connection to God our entire lives.
This post was adapted from my drash offered on Shabbat morning, on the first day of Pesach 2016, at my congregation Shirat HaNefesh in Chevy Chase, MD.
My deep thanks go to Stan Dorn of the Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, whose translation and teaching of these Chasidic texts inspired this drash. Any mistakes that may be found here are mine and mine alone.