Although it should have been immediately obvious, it took me a number of years, reading Tefilla (Prayer) 33 (from תקט”ו תפילות (Taktu Tefillot) “515 Prayers” of the Ramchal) many times, until my eye caught his point that מקוה (Mikvah), a gathering of waters in which we become pure, and קוה (Kaveh), hope/trust are closely related.
קַוֵּה אֶל־יְהוָה חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל־יְהֹוָה, (Psalm 27:14), (Kaveh El Adonay, Chazak v’Ya’ametz Libecha v’Kaveh El Adonay) is often sung/chanted as an aid to meditation and in many liturgies it introduces Ein Keloheinu towards the end of Shacharit every day. “Trust/Hope in God, Be strong and fortify your heart and trust/hope in God.”
Are we really ready to trust so deeply? Are we willing to fully plunge into God, to immerse ourselves completely in His Oneness, holding nothing back? Can we believe the words of Jeremiah (17:13), מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהֹוָה (Mikvah Yisrael Adonay) God is Israel’s Mikvah. Do we even want to?
One of the reasons this became an “unleapable leap of faith” for many of us is because we’ve spent generations understanding God through a medieval, anti-Jewish Christian lens that sold even many of our greatest leaders on the image of a “wrathful” and “vengeful” “Old Testament God” who, according to this viewpoint, was replaced and repudiated by a later “God of Love”. God, as too many of us conceive of Him, is threatening rather than welcoming. Especially now, still reeling from the horror of the Shoah (Holocaust) and witnessing constant existential threats to the State of Israel, do we really want to seek comfort and security in this God? More likely, we’d rather fly under the radar and escape His notice altogether than to have any relationship with Him at all.
Unfortunately, that’s frequently reinforced with the often-well-meaning, yet damaging, rabbinic emphasis on rules and the consequent punishments for violating them. Shabbat, rather than a day to enjoy the closeness of family and friends, of prayer and words of Torah and, by extension, The Creator, is instead filled with anxiety and obsessiveness over possible “violations” of artificial stringencies that aren’t actually required in the first place.
Our Talmudic tradition should train us to examine and analyze phenomena in great detail and accuracy, allowing us to use our minds with precision, great joy and with gratitude to The Creator Who graced us with it. All too often, though, it has become distorted, building a framework for worry and distress. Theoretical possibilities, so important to sharpen our analytical skills, are misinterpreted (and misrepresented) as absolute baseline requirements, thus becoming anxiety-filled obstacles to any observance, let alone faith, at all.
Even the gradual, lifelong approach to God becomes fraught with increasing anxiety as we mistakenly are taught to define ‘יראת ה, (Yirat HaShem), which really means Awe-Awareness/Respect of God rather as panic/fear of Him. After all, if we worship the “Old Testament God”, we’re wise to fear Him and give Him a very wide berth, indeed. We’ll never even get started with ‘אהבת ה (Ahavat HaShem), Loving God.
The challenge for rabbis (and I include myself since I, all too often, also fail) is to inspire fellow Jews to passionately seek God, to realize that there is nothing more desirable in this life than to have a deep, loving relationship with Him.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we drop all the rules and structure that God gives us (which actually are both a means to pepare and fortify ourselves, and also the path we travel to actually reach Him). It does mean, however, that we clarify what these rules really are, that we scrub away the “rust” of defensiveness and obsessiveness which not only separate us from Him, but which makes Him appear so repulsive to many whose connection is already so tenuous.
The prohibitions in halacha are “warning/danger/don’t-go” signs that tell us that this path leads away from, rather than towards God. If we trust our leaders, that is if they can re-earn our trust, we don’t personally need to know all the details of these highly complex paths but we can rely on those who both have greater knowledge and also have our best interests, rather than their own glory or political/financial power, in mind. Then our internal struggle with our unique Yetzer Haras (illicit desires) becomes, “Why would I want to distance myself from a deeper communion with The Creator? What possible benefit can I gain from this prohibited activity or object-of-desire that is greater than my loss from subsequently dimming the Infinite Light in my life?” Positive commandments, no matter how difficult and consuming, are seen as taking steps closer to the Source of All Light (keeping in mind the “inverse square rule” of physics, each step we take closer multiplies our benefit exponentially!) rather than marching to someone else’s arbitrary drumbeat.
We need to inspire with our own growing sense of joy at our own accelerating journey towards God rather than attempt to either scare or coerce our people. And, of course, we need to keep ourselves always moving forward, never falling into the temptation of the guilt-and-force modality.
Especially the generations since the European “Enlightenment”, but even our entire Biblical age, are filled with our frequent temptation to either to freeze and fossilize our dynamic journey or to flee to the opposite extreme of chaos, תהו ובהו (Tohu v’Vohu). Each of these extremes is Godless, and thus, ultimately, lifeless.
But we know better and as rabbis we must teach the truth, עץ חיים היא (Etz Chayim Hi), The Torah is a Tree of Life, a vital, bursting-with-life-energy fountain which nourishes us with the אור אין סוף (Or Ein Sof), the Pure Infinite Light which is the animating/motivating/sustaining energy of all life.
We must present God as our destination rather than trying to sneak “under the radar” past Him. May we immerse ourselves in the Mikvah that is really God, filled with and animated by our trust in Him.