Feeling G-d’s Presence: Is That Enough?

From time to time, I have individuals who write me directly questions on topics of interest that I had forwarded for their perusal.  A couple of weeks ago, someone wrote me the following:

“How can one follow all the laws of Jews and still have time to exist like people of today?   There is a law and explanation for everything. To learn to live, one would be studying every minute . . . I feel HIS Presence everywhere.”  [There was more but this was the key section for my purposes.]

I felt compelled to respond, twice, and I thought I would share my thoughts with you, my inquisitive reader.

RESPONSE 1–It is not difficult to fulfill the Torah’s basic laws, just as it is not difficult to live by all of secular society’s basic rules, laws, regulations, etiquette, and cultural norms.  You are right that you need to learn some Torah on a regular basis. That is easy compared to the endless nonsense with which most people kill lots of time every day.

Feeling G-d’s presence always is good but that alone is not having a relationship and that alone is not a path towards spiritual improvement. Feelings by themselves are limited and need to be concretized in order to transform our nature and actions in a positive direction on an ongoing basis. Only actions, fulfilling commandments both positive and negative, elevate the soul and bring us closer to Hashem.

Try simply feeling close to your husband or child but not doing anything in the relationship and see how far you’ll get.

The word mitzvah (translated as commandment) is rooted in the word connection.  The word korban (translated as offering—sacrifice is an inferior translation) is rooted in the word to draw closer.

Everything in Torah Judaism, our tefillot, our constant mitzvah observance, our chessed, our daily Torah learning, etc. are all without exception fundamentally about two things: connecting/binding ourselves intimately in a spiritual sense to our Creator, and drawing ever closer spiritually to our Creator and His children who populate the world.

Only through these constant daily actions elevating every human level and activity can we hope to transcend the dross of what otherwise would be ultimately mere quotidian burdens.  Without constant, sincere, eager, and proper fulfillment of G-d’s commandments throughout the day, our customary tasks too often would be reduced to mere banal humdrum, devoid of any real oomph or meaning; without utilizing the proper spiritual tools, without our daily and sustained active engagement with the Divine–our Creator!–we would sense that our haphazard efforts to transcend our existential loneliness would eventually result in failure as we would be using the wrong “tools.”

Use your feelings of closeness to Hashem to drive you feverishly towards a more intimate loving relationship with Him, such that you yearn at all times to please Him, to honor Him, to make your will His will, and to treat all of His children with righteousness, justice, compassion, sensitivity, and great respect, always in accordance with the Torah (and not your own impressionable thoughts of right and wrong).

To the extent that life can be exceedingly complex and challenging at times, and thus an extra measure of halacha and Torah knowledge are required, to that extent Hashem has blessed us with many great talmidei chachamim (as well as many sagacious women steeped in Torah wisdom) to whom we can go to and ask our case-specific questions for a quick general (and sometimes specific) approach to our concerns. And we need to develop a powerful relationship with a Rav who understands us and our needs well, to provide to the best extent possible a consistent outlook tailored to our specific spiritual stature and circumstances.

There is much more you can accomplish than you realize. Feelings are good and necessary but are never sufficient by themselves. And with G-d’s help, there are always others, very learned and wise others, who are there happily able to help you understand how to serve Hashem in the best way possible way for every and any situation.  But the more you learn Torah every day (or as often as you can), the better you can frame your questions with precision and thereby bind yourself irrevocably and lovingly in the closest manner possible with the ultimate source of all true Goodness.

RESPONSE 2–I just came back from a walk and wanted to add something else to what I wrote in my email to you yesterday.  It is misguided to think one cannot “follow all the laws of Jews and still have time to exist like people of today.”  And furthermore, it is erroneous to aver that “to learn to live, one would be studying every minute.”

I will take the latter phrase first.  And I will take the first half of the latter first.  “To learn to live” is a wonderful phrase.  Could there possibly be anything more important?  Anything?  I am going to go out on a limb here and assume you meant by the word “live,” a spiritually rewarding and uplifting life and not the physical biological ability to be alive (as opposed to the alternative).  So, to learn to live means to learn how to live a transcendent life as often as possible, a life saturated with rich relationships and powerful purpose, a life that lifts you above the mundane with magnificent meaning and/or transforms the merely mundane activities of life into the sublime.  With that more precise meaning of your phrase “To learn to live,” I repeat my question:  could there possibly be anything more important?  I suggest there isn’t.  Literally.  Absolutely nothing could be more important than learning to live such a life.

With that part of your phrase clarified, we can move on to the second half of your second phrase.  While one certainly does not have to “be studying every minute” to live such a life—because by definition you wouldn’t have the time to experience and accomplish all the other aspects of living embodied in our above working definition—I ask you in return, what are you doing every minute?  If you tried to account for every minute of your life, are you knowingly working toward improving yourself as a human being?  And if you can’t do that “every minute” at this time because you don’t quite have your spiritual “muscles” in the best shape yet, what prevents you from studying every other minute or every other day as a beginning?  Do you truly believe life is an all or nothing affair?  Of course not, and your Creator knows that as well.  He expects you to do your best, not someone else’s best and not an impossible angelic best.

You need to begin learning as much Torah now as you can, as often as you can.  Whatever the frequency and length of time it is, be it five minutes every few days or 30 minutes every other day, an hour every day, etc., tailor the learning to your abilities.  I think you’re quite capable of doing that. You will find a richer more positive life soon enough.  If you learn with absolute sincerity, deep humility, and with someone who is learned and with whom you can relate/connect, you will be transformed, just as every parent is instantaneously transformed once his or her child is born.

Now on to your first phrase.  The first half of the first phrase, I will let the Torah answer in a little bit below.  The second half of your first phrase is intriguing and I am going to pick it apart, if I may.

You want to “exist like people of today.”  What a curious phase.  Do you mean you wish to live like traditional Japanese people in Japan live?  Do you mean you wish to live like Africans in Kenya live?  Do you mean you wish to live like an Arab Muslim in Saudi Arabia?  Do you mean you wish to live like a Chilean in Santiago?

Perhaps you are not referring to “people of today” in different countries. Perhaps you mean American people, specifically.  Do you wish to live like a farmer in Kansas?  Do you wish to live like a fisherman in Maine?  Do you wish to live like a truck driver constantly delivering all our essential goods across the country?  These are all very honorable occupations.

Perhaps you mean cultural norms in America?  Do Torah-observant Jews eat in restaurants, get married, travel, have jobs of all kinds, go out and socialize with friends, go to college/university, attend sports events, learn hobbies and various crafts, participate in community affairs and various charitable organizations, and so much more?  Of course, we do.  That sounds very normal to me.

I hope the “people of today” of whom you refer does not include the very long list of modern American secular society’s endless ills of “normality”: drug addition, divorce, domestic violence, failure to graduate high school, failure to get married before having children, relatively high crime rate, high degree of social isolation and loneliness, lack of purpose and meaning, etc.  I want to flee as fast and far away from those kinds of “people of today” and for the most part Torah-observant Jews have only a small fraction of the ills of secular normal American society.

In the Torah’s Book of Numbers, Chapter 23, the evil gentile prophet Bilaam said to Balak, the evil King of Moav (Balak had hired Bilaam to curse the Jewish people), something very interesting after having received multiple messages from G-d regarding the Jews.  None of the messages was a curse of course but rather each was repeatedly a blessing of the Children of Israel (which made Balak furious!).  I want to focus on just one brief part of one of those blessings that Bilaam was forced to proclaim publicly as it is one of the most remarkable phrases in the Torah; it speaks directly to every Jew everywhere that wants to assimilate to one degree or another and just “exist like people of today.”  Here is the pertinent clause from Numbers 23:9—”it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.”

Not only is the goal of becoming like the other nations an improper goal but it is a futile goal since it will never be and can never be.  The Torah explicitly says so in the Book of Numbers 23:9!

For more on this topic, you might want to read the Book of Samuel, Chapter 8 where the people demand a king so that they can then be like all the other nations.  In the long run, because their intention was improper and inappropriate, G-d was most displeased and the vast majority of monarchies in Israel were far from optimal to put it mildly (King David and King Solomon, notwithstanding).

Take a look at Samuel I 8:4-8 and 8:19-20.  Twice the people used the phrase “like all the nations” and G-d said to Samuel because of that type of request “they have rejected Me from reigning over them” and “they forsook Me.”  Without G-d’s blessing, there can be no national long-term success.  We must not be like all the nations.  It’s as simple as that.

But we don’t have to go back millennia to make the point that becoming like “people of today” is an exercise in futility.  Just look at all the Jews in Germany during Hitler’s time who had thought of themselves as German as you could get.  It didn’t help them.  Look at the rising tide of antisemitism in the US today.  Looking and acting like “people of today” hasn’t helped any of them.  And look at Israel today.  Has becoming a secular Jewish State and a member of the United Nations made Israel accepted as a normal country by the majority of countries in the world? Not at all!  Many of the original secular Zionists going back to Theodore Herzl dreamed of an Israel that will be “like all the nations” as an antidote to antisemitism.  It hasn’t worked out well so far.

In fact, I will tell you that my personal experience has always been the more confident, proud, and knowledgeable a Jew is about his Torah-observant Judaism and his relationship with his Creator, the more respect people of all kinds give that Jew.  It is by becoming Torah-observant and a Torah-learner that you can better interact with the world and more effectively influence everyone else to live a more holy life.

I will end my response with a few words on the first half of your first statement.  You claim it is difficult to follow all the laws.  I claim otherwise. Not just from personal experience but even from my professional experience.

Have you ever read the IRC (Internal Revenue Code, the US tax laws)?  It’s Title 26 in the US Code and you can read the entire set of statutes here: I should warn you ahead of time that it will take a few lifetimes to read and understand the entire text. Actually, it’s impossible to understand the entire text by itself, even if you were to attempt to read all of it, as it can’t be properly understood without the US Treasury Regulations:  to give you an idea of the length of the Treasury Regulations, they are also impossibly long in their entirety.

But I have more news for you.  Even the IRC and the Treasury Regulations together won’t provide you with a complete understanding of how you are expected to be in compliance with all the tax laws in all situations and with all your interactions with IRS.  You need the Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) to understand the implementation of the the IRC and the Regulations.  The IRM is extremely long as are the Regs (as they are affectionately called) so I strongly advise against you trying to read all of the IRM.  But you can try, if you’d like.   Here’s the link:

Even then, however, there are ambiguities and potentially contradictory aspects of this voluminous writing given all the complexity of human existence, tax administration, and the ever-changing tax laws, so you probably won’t be surprised to read that some people would like a definitive answer even before they carry out and report a particular financial transaction with tax implications.  To that end, there are individual, case specific questions that can officially be submitted (for a fee of course) directly to IRS, and they then provide an answer to that specific taxpayer for that specific situation (the response therefore cannot legally be used for anyone else or any other situation as each case has unique aspects).    They are called Private Letter Rulings.

And then, regardless of the IRC, the Regs, the IRM, and the Private Letter Rulings, there are still disputes as to exactly what the tax law is and its implementation in specific situations.  What to do?  Go to (IRS Appeals and) US Tax Court (or US Federal District Court) of course!

Let’s summarize this relative to what you wrote about being a Torah-observant Jew and its purported difficulty.  Do you accurately/correctly file, report, and pay timely and in full your Federal, State, and Local income taxes each year?  How is that possible?  Aren’t there too many rules?  No one could possibly know all the rules and still be in compliance with the law, right?  It’s impossibly difficult!  You’d have to spend every waking minute studying taxes, no?  Is that in fact what you do?  I doubt it.  You learn what you can, you use tax software possibly, and you obtain both informal and professional advice/counsel when and where needed.

Let’s get more granular.  There are many departments in IRS.  Just to name a few:  Examination, Criminal, Collection, Human Capital Office, Taxpayer Advocate Service, Counsel, Appeals, Insolvency, etc.  There are many more and the IRM has to cover EVERYTHING.

Field Collection is just one part of Collection.  The vast majority of Field Collection work is in Part 5 of the IRM.  Revenue Officers in Field Collection enforce the collection of unpaid Federal taxes and take many different actions that taxpayers often don’t appreciate at all; taxpayers therefore will sometimes contest these enforcement actions in order to retain some or all of their existing assets and income.  These potential challenges to the work of the revenue officer means the IRS official must have a good working knowledge of the IRC, Regs, and IRM or else his efforts might be reversed.  But didn’t we just say above that it’s all too much?  How then can a revenue officer know what to do and when best to do it?

I have been blessed with having become well-versed in most areas of Field Collection and while I don’t have any direct reports currently, in my over three decades, I have supervised hundreds of professional revenue officers, both as a front-line supervisor and as a mid-level territory manager.  Every revenue officer I ever met wants to do his job properly, to improve his work on a consistent basis, and to be the best he can at his profession while minimizing the possibility of making mistakes.

I have told scores and hundreds of revenue officers at a time—while wearing my brightly colored Bucharian kippah (it’s a long story but I am an Ashkenazic Jew)—that one possible answer is to take just 30 minutes a week and read attentively a revised section of the IRM in Part 5 (an existing unrevised section will work as well).  I publicly stated with confidence that each will be amazed how after a few years his knowledge will soar and his performance will improve.  Over the decades, many have thanked me for that advice.

Do you know where I got that idea from?  Daf Yomi, where you learn one page a day of the Babylonian Talmud.  At that rate, you will complete all of the Oral Torah in around 7.5 years.

Here’s another amazing thing.  Look at these parallels:

IRC                                                                  Chumash (Five Books of Moses)

Treasury Regulations                                  Mishnah

IRM                                                                 Gemara

Private Letter Rulings                                Sheilot/Tshuvot

US Tax Court                                                Beit Din

US tax administration is incredibly like the structure of the Torah and its implementation.  If you can do your taxes, you certainly can live a wildly fulfilling Torah life!  [Pssst . . . but living a Torah life is much more enjoyable than doing your taxes every year—count on it!]

And now for my conclusion.  Actually, it’s G-d’s conclusion.  To the extent you think learning Torah and living by the Torah is too much, to that extent you are mistaken.  G-d directly addressed that concern in the Torah itself.  Here it is:

Deuteronomy 30:11-14

11For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. יאכִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָֽנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹֽא־רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא:
12It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” יבלֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַֽעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֨יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה:
13Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” יגוְלֹֽא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַֽעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה:
14Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it. ידכִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִלְבָֽבְךָ֖ לַֽעֲשׂתֽוֹ:


About the Author
Mark Newman is married to Ellen Newman and together were blessed with raising Ariel Yitzchak a”h for 18 years in Great Neck, NY to love Judaism and Israel. Mark has worked professionally for over three decades in the US Federal government as a civil law enforcement officer.
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