My ears have increasingly become audience to heart-wrenching dramas over the past few years. More distressing is that these tragedies are not fiction. Almost everyone I know is more troubled now than ever before, (even countries) and trapped in intractable situations that appear a little too paralyzing to be entirely manmade. Like never before we are unable to extricate ourselves from the mess we find ourselves in.
I cannot help but fall into the mindset that perhaps we really are in pre-Messianic times about which it is written that humanity will be beset by prodigious problems. (Some of the pre-Messianic conditions the Talmud lists are that sin-fearing people will be detested; truth will be missing; unbridled irresponsibility on the part of authorities; family-breakup with mutual recriminations; it will be hard to know who to trust; the young will insult the old; money problems, sickness, there will be no pity or compassion, etc.) And so, when all the escape routes we’ve always counted on become inaccessible, we are driven to become philosophers. We finally want the truth. We find ourselves asking as we face the nagging darkness that has become our lives, “What’s it all really about? “Why am I here?” and “What’s the purpose of life?” These popular questions are spiritually-driven questions, yet the askers never seem satisfied with the spiritual answer: Serving G-d and elevating the world through Torah is our purpose.
“Nah, has to be more than that,” is a reply I’ve often heard by those attempting to shirk off any religious duty that would interrupt their daily schedules. As palliatives to empty hearts and flagging souls, these searchers fill their lives with materialistic things, sexual escapades, Botox, yoga, body sculpting, shopping, golfing and all kinds of external decorations and distractions, to no avail. Happiness evades them and another day dies. The shallow pursuit of more and plenty will never satisfactorily answer the questions above but will even further exasperate us as our hands are filled with “gold” but are our hearts empty of peace. It is true for people; it is true for nations.
I find the question, “What does G-d want from us?” an odd question. When we read Atkin’s book on low-carb dieting, we knew what he wanted: When we read self-help books, we also know what the authors recommend for better lives. Not sure why then, when reading G-d’s book we all become illiterates and can’t seem to understand our native tongue. We have the Torah for over 3000 years and we still don’t understand what G-d wants from us? Hhhhmmm? That doesn’t sound honest. He has given us His Book filled with directives. It’s there in black and white. Yet we are more inclined to believe the print in the National Enquirer than G-d’s own word. G-d and all his rules are such an inconvenience; there must be a quicker fix to happiness than that burdensome book. And so mankind builds its golden calves….How’s that been working out? When it comes down to TRUTH, you can’t go shopping for answers that you like. The Torah and its directives are the only truth. If you don’t subscribe to it, it’s your prerogative. But then don’t seek for truth in the world of lies. Don’t search for bread crumbs in a matzah factory.
It is the law of nature that every empty space calls to be filled–crevices get filled with dirt or water, blank walls cry out for artwork, a bucket, a chair, a heart and a bowl all desire to be filled. But the choice has always been ours with what we fill emptiness. The rabbis teach us to fill our voids and pain with prayers. We learn from the story of Noah wherein G-d destroyed the whole world, a corrupt and disgustingly depraved world, conditions with which we ourselves have become all too familiar, that Noah was saved by an ark. But it wasn’t simply a boat. Our rabbis teach that the Hebrew word for Ark, teivah also mean “word.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches that “the construction of the ark itself alludes directly to prayer.” When we pray to G-d with all our hearts and all our souls and all our might, we can change nature itself. The rains first fell in a natural fashion as G-d gave mankind the chance to repent and pray. The people of the time, like us, ignored the warnings and chose other hopes to hang on to. They didn’t board the ark of prayer, being too confident the storms would pass. They were destroyed. In fact Rabbi Nachman further points out that the dimensions of the ark written in the Torah, 300 X 50 X 30 cubits, parallels the Hebrew word for speech/tongue “lashon” of which its root letters are also valued at 300, 50 and 30. Praying and reopening a relationship with G-d is the ark of our survival.
In this week’s Torah reading of Vayeitzei, we read about Jacob’s now famous dream of a ladder set in the earth and its top reaching heavenward. G-d’s angels were ascending and descending. Here too the rabbinic sages teach that the angels represent the ascent of man’s prayers toward the celestial sphere. The ascending angels bring up the supplications of man to the celestial throne and then descend back down laden with heavenly blessings. The Rambam teaches that the ladder had four rungs which correspond to the four stages through which man must pass through to reach G-d (Rabbi Elie Munk, “The Call of the Torah”). G-d is just waiting to hear from us, just as parents anxiously wait and are so happy to hear from their own children. But just as we hate when someone talks to us while texting and playing with their phones, G-d too wants our undivided attention. Pray like you actually care about the relationship and not with burden-inspired impatience to get it over with. Open a book of Tehillim or a siddur and pray! Savour the words, invest heart and honesty into them. You want to know what G-d wants from you? Stop asking everyone who can’t answer you. Ask Him! Start talking, start praying and start building your ark to survive the gathering storm.