How do you keep the presence, awareness and reality of G-d in mind, in heart? Is there a way?
John D was the president of a one billion dollar company that I had a long relationship with. Once, schmoozing with John in his luxurious office, surrounded by paintings certainly worth in the millions, he leans back. A man with a big frame and bigger smile, crossing his legs, “John, is that a hole on the bottom of your shoe?” Chuckling he responds, “Harold, I started as a box boy and worked up to being a salesman, constantly pounding the pavement, that is how I got here. I don’t pound the pavement as I did, but I keep my shoes this way as if I am still on the streets to remember what got me here and what is important.” Then, he reaches into his left pocket and pulls out a crumpled dollar and shakes it in front of me. “I always keep one dollar in my pocket. Every now and then, I pull it out and imagine it is my last one. Also to remember where I came from but more importantly, to put that fear in me that creates that drive, that hunger to not to take anything for granted. In order for me to keep succeeding, to keep me grounded, to do everything I have to in order to succeed, I need to feel my last dollar.”
When Yaakov is told that Esau is approaching, the Torah tells us “Then Jacob was greatly afraid.” Yaakov was frightened!? How could that be? Last week in Vayetze prior to Yaakov going on his journey another puzzling statement… Jacob in talking to G-d says “If G-d will be with me.” If? He was just told G-d was with him. Also, as commentators share, do you give G-d an ultimatum? If? Especially a soul like Yaakov that has an intense on-going relationship and experienced first-hand the awe of the Holy One. “If”? And, “Jacob was greatly afraid”, again, how could that possibly be with in his back pocket, a direct promise from G-d of his attachment and of the future. Didn’t Yaakov know G-d has been there, is there and will be there? What is the mystery behind these positions of Yaakov?
Rabbi Heschel in his work “The Biblical View of Reality” raises the all-important question of, how do we, who do not directly experience G-d, keep G-d as a reality in our lives?
We do have the words of the Torah to consider, to ponder, but the Biblical style miracles are not there. Here is a very brief synopsis of Heschel’s thoughts from said work that explores that all important question, presents the relevant problems and offers rousing thoughts to address those problems.
Regarding seeing or feeling G-d, Heschel points out, we do have Scripture, while the people in the Bible, they had G-d as a direct reality in their lives. Is our reading, learning or hearing the words enough?
“The mere remembrance of such an event is too weak to hold its spell on the soul of man with its restlessness and vitality.” Heschel cites a psalmist “O taste and know that the Lord is good.” How does one know? How does one taste?” From Job he quotes “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives……….from my flesh I shall see G-d.” Heschel asks “how does a man reach a stage of thinking where he can ‘see G-d from his flesh’? What are the ways that lead to the certainty of this existence, to the perception of His presence?”
Many would in describing Rabbi Dr. Avraham Joshua Heschel refer to him mostly as a philosopher, a Jewish Thinker. He was much more, a scholar, a professor, a Talmid Chacham (well versed in Jewish resources) and an activist. However, the notion of his philosophizing here is huge as you will see. We will find through what I perceive is a prescription for us to philosophize, that the ifs and the fear and/or awe can be achieved, yielding a connection. But it takes a bit of dreaming, imagining and re-positioning ourselves.
Heschel writes, “the Hebrew word Olam, in post-biblical times denotes the world……to many scholars it is derived from the root Alam….meaning to hide, to conceal. The world is hiddenness, its essence is mystery.” “To the Biblical Man…..not the apparent but the hidden is the apparent; not the order but the mystery of the order….is what man is called upon to behold.”
From here Heschel brings up the notion that part of our own seemed path to seeing or feeling G-d is what we perhaps all do, look at the Grandeur of Nature and be taken by its splendor. It is not enough. With the notion of “Olam” and “Alam” in mind he suggests to go beyond the beauty, to seek the mystery in all that we see, to search for aspects of their origination, to ask questions of ourselves. Look at a watch and be aware there must be a watchmaker, look at nature (really everything) in a state of “radical amazement…wonder.” Ultimately, to put ourselves in the position of seeking or being part of the mystery of something that is hidden. By our own dreaming, imaging, re-positioning, perceiving, we feel and are overcome. “The mystery is only the beginning; beyond the mystery is G-d.”
I think this process he puts us through is best summed by his citing and raising Isaiah’s well known phrase, “Lift up your eyes and see! Who created these? “ Heschel postures “ Who Created these? Is a question that contains the impossibility of one’s giving a negative answer; it is an answer in disguise; a question of amazement, not of curiosity. ….There is a way of asking the great question which can only elicit an affirmative answer, what is the way?”
Bottom line, we must ask the questions, the deep questions, to be actors if you will playing an active role of repositioning ourselves to the mindset of the Prophet, of Biblical man of what is behind beyond Yaakov’s if and being afraid? In essence we find G-d in a process of philosophizing about G-d.
Back to“If” and “Jacob was afraid.” Here is what I am thinking. “]”If” was the hole in his shoe and “afraid” was his last dollar in his pocket. “If” represents his taking perspective of his relationship with Hashem. Not to take it for granted, not an ultimatum, rather positioning it as if were absolute, real, positive thinking. Yaakov was visioning his past and future walking with Hashem. You have heard “dress as if you are successful”, walk into a room as if you made the deal. Behave as if the positive outcome will happen and it can happen. Walk with me, with the hole in the shoe so you do not forget that whatever you have achieved in the past, G-d was there. “Afraid” is his last dollar. Yaakov is saying put yourself in the position, imagine that even if G-d is with you…even if you have success in your life, re-position yourself, keep that drive, hunger and fear in order to achieve. The notion of the power of fear is to not only appreciate the presence of G-d, but also to remind us that it takes a partnership where we too must perform a role, like Yaakov does with preparing gifts, prayer and strength in anticipation of Esau, not to just rely just on G-d doing. It is a real partnership. It takes belief and a hole in the shoe.
My friend John D actively positions himself connecting to the seeds of the past that got him to where is his and to where he is to go. It just doesn’t happen, we don’t grow nor achieve without G-d. Maybe the secret to all things is to always have that last dollar and G-d in your pocket.
Harold – Zvi Hersh Ben Naftali