Yissurim shel Ahavah: Lessons in Contemplative Life - (Jan 2011)

Signs and Wonders are not always as dramatic as the ones we read about in the Exodus narrative. Sometimes the very ordinary events of our daily life are “angelic” messengers which bring us glimpses of the Divine. They sometimes act as guiding sign-posts along the path of our current journey. Sometimes they stimulate inspirational thoughts which make clear the issues with which we grapple.  Two or three times a year I “go out” of my village into the nearby countryside. The photo which heads this article shows a mountainous view I had last week while on such a trip. It was like balm to both my eyes and to my heart. Not difficult to feel uplifted and grateful to God when looking at a scene like that!

But those mountains are also harsh and very cold. Living up there is difficult and making a living is tough for those who are there all the while.

Life- the way God has made it- is not always easy. The lessons of love can sometimes be both beautiful but hard.

The ordinary events of one’s life can sometimes be very painful and yet, with a certain perspective we can sometimes see that they too are teaching us something. The mystics call these painful lessons  yissurim shel ahavah- “the trials of love”. They were not being masochistic. They were trying to be realistic. They were trying to make sense of an incomprehensible God and the perplexing way His creation seems to function.

At the time of writing it is the first week of the civil New Year and the current Torah reading is Parshah Bo. I have a practice of selecting three texts for hegyon ha-lev (lectio divina) each week: One each from the Torah and Haftarah portions and another -which is chosen totally at random- from the book of Psalms. Here are the three texts from this week’s hegyon ha-lev:


I’d like to share two reflections which these texts brought to mind.

The first arose from thinking about “going out and going in” (beveitecha uv’lechtecha vaderech) and outlines how a contemplative, even a solitary contemplative, is always communally active despite appearances.

The second reflection considers how the lessons of life are places where we can meet God whether one is living an in-going “contemplative” lifestyle or an outgoing “social” lifestyle.

“At midnight, I will go out in the midst of Egypt.”
(Exodus 11:4)
The Torah verse is telling us the purpose of the “signs and wonders” of the Exodus: That they are there as Revelation.

“But as for you, I will discipline you in measure, but I will not utterly destroy you.”
(Jeremiah 46:28)
The Haftarah verse is telling us that the challenges and difficulties in our life are often part of a loving Education.

Let the Righteous smite me in kindness and let him correct me as oil anoints the head.
(Psalm 141:5)
The Psalm verse reminds us that our closest associates, as living “messengers” of God, can provide us with such revelation and education if we are brave enough and open enough to listen to their well-meant criticism. These “friends” can be people but they can also be texts or the events of life itself.

Parshah Bo begins with a reference to “going in”.

“Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart”
Exodus 10:1

Regular visitors to this website will know that I am living a solitary contemplative life as a Jewish monk. Spiritually and philosophically I am not alone as I am bound in thought and prayer to my friends, to the other members in our small online community, and to the entire community of the People of Israel. I am not running away from community in any sense, rather I am constantly aware of my place as an active contributor to each of those communities both in my prayers, in my writings, and by my life itself. I “go in”, for most of my time is spent in silence and in solitude. My “going out” is something I do principally online through the community website and in the handful of private letters I write each week. But going out or coming in, I am experiencing the lessons which “life” (or perhaps I should say with more accuracy: Providence) teaches me just as much as someone leading a busier social life. After all- “busy” can be an escape from reality for many people anyway!

Introspection means “looking inside”. There is a sense in which the plane of communication with God is one which is most often accessed by introspection. In this form of contemplative prayer (hitbonenut) one is focused not on one’s self but on the presence of God in the individual soul. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev actually equates the indwelling of this presence in the individual to that of the Shekinah in the Holy of Holies.

“The mind of man is the Holy of Holies… when, in the midst of praying, the zaddik is seized with great fervor, when he kindles with flame and lifts his hands, it is as once, when-in the Holy of Holies- the cherubim pointed upward their wings.”
Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev
(Trans M. Buber)

In fact, we are not really being introspective when we are praying or meditating in this way, we are really having our attention drawn to that Presence which is always with us/in us/around us but which we cannot focus on without some specific concentration of will or mind- b’chol levav’cha uv’chol nafshecha.

That dual focus is actually not something we do, but it is something that God causes to arise in our souls. Our prayer is also a matter of revelation for God is showing Himself to us. Even our invitation asking God to be present to us in our lives, whether explicit or implicit, is a gift from God.

Our chosen text from Parshah Bo (which describes the death of the firstborn) reads:

I will go out in the midst of Egypt
Exodus 11:4

The Onkelos translation of the phrase “I will go out” is “I will reveal myself”.

If the purpose of the plagues shown to Pharoah in the Exodus narrative is to demonstrate the power of God…(in other words: they are a form of Revelation)... might not the same be true when we are sent unpleasant or difficult “signs” in our own education.  Might these be just as much a revelation of the nature of God as those other acts of Divine Providence which are experienced immediately as “good” or “beneficial” by the happy recipient?

It is quite clear that the revelation which Egypt is about to receive and which Israel will witness is something very harsh and very cruel indeed. We do not understand why it should have been necessary for God to have “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that such a brutal and devastating lesson was required, nor do we understand why Pharaoh subsequently failed to adhere to his “conversion” and merited the second dreadful lesson of the destruction of the Egyptian forces in the midst of the Sea of Reeds. I suggest that we follow the tradition of the pious and bless His Name regardless of what we see as very harsh judgment indeed. Our God is not a cosy cut-out figure, nor is He predictable or explicable. He is most certainly not made in our image. And yet we believe that He is a God who “feels” Compassionate Mercy and that He encourages us to exercise such mercy ourselves.

When we judge ourselves, as in an examination of conscience at the end of the day or in our annual review at Jewish New Year (and for some, at the secular New Year as well) - we are also “going inside” in introspection and this time we are making our selves the focus of our meditation.

But there is a sense in which this is similarly a matter of revelation too. We can only see the stupidity or injustice or laziness or self-righteousness of our actions if God reveals them too us. Fortunately- though we may be in pain on reviewing ourselves this way, God is not just showing us the error of our ways- He is also guiding us through the maze of development and educational experience which the process represents. As we read elsewhere in the same Haftarah:

“For see, I will save you from afar”
Jeremiah 46:27

The work of self examination is ours, but “from afar”- without us being aware of it sometimes- it is God Himself who is enlightening and healing us.

Still, we are not hoodwinking ourselves into thinking that His intervening revelation is going to be a bundle of laughs. We are given due warning in the Zechariah 46:28 verse that God’s disciplinary fire purifies and that, like all fire, it burns.

But then, the text also reminds us that this disciplinary action is administered with the greatest love. We have all (I hope) experienced a love which hurts, or a depth of concern for a friend or sibling or child or parent which is tangible in its anguished concern and devotion.. In other words, it is possible for some of our harsh and unpleasant experiences to be yissurim shel ahavah….the anguish of one being tested in love. (I think this applies to all such experiences even though we cannot always see that, but I realise that mine is a rather extreme perspective.)

As the randomly chosen Psalm verse reminds us, such an educative process is akin to a form of spiritual elevation.

Only Kings, Priests and Prophets are “anointed” and yet we are told in the Psalm verse that this is the experience of those who are chided by the Righteous.

From the Haftarah verse, and in the first instance we may take this to refer to God as the True Righteous One, but it may also be taken to refer to the acts of chastisement which are administered out of real love and concern by our community members, by other Jews, or by our closest friends and family. They are acting simultaneously as God’s angels of Justice and Mercy…and fortunately for us, those two qualities are also simultaneously present when the revealing criticism is coming from someone who truly loves us.

Our relationships with those in our immediate and wider community (or communities) can be a struggle from which a revelation can descend. So how does this come about?  How do our close companions provide us with lessons from God?

  • A conflict of opinion can often produce a clearer personal view, hopefully not a rigid or brittle and crystalised one but one which is refined and purified in the spiritual furnace. 
  • The humility which needs to be exercised if we are to benefit from the experience of being criticized or admonished by those who have our best interests at heart can be a salutary reminder that one’s opinions are not necessarily the right ones nor the only ones worth hearing. 
  • When we are trying to accept other people’s views as valid, this does not mean we have to agree with them, but we are all enriched by seeing other possible perspectives when they shed light on our own views. Even when our disagreement is with some person or with some ideology which we firmly believe to be wrong, even ethically or theologically wrong, we can still employ the kind of mercy we hope to be in receipt of from God by viewing such people as “approaching the truth” rather than being “just plain wrong”. This is not smarmy ideological spin. It is an honest and sincere creative attitude which can change personal and community relationships for the better. We are all “approaching Truth” and as only God can embody it in its fullness - we, none of us, can possess it ourselves. We can all attempt to approach “it” with sincerity though.

Regular visitors to this website will know that before my  conversion to Judaism, I had been a Christian and also a Carmelite monk.  Living in a monastic community, so Fr. John Bernard Keegan- my  former Carmelite Novice master- told me in 1974, is like being inside a stone polishing machine. The stones are in a pot with a little oil on a turntable which is ever revolving and the stones slowly but surely erode each other to become polished (one hopes) into exquisite beauty. He pointed out to me that although we did not maintain close friendships with the other monks and though we hardly ever spoke, simply walking the same “path” in a shared location would have its educative and purifying effect as we came to terms with those little annoyances and difficult encounters which fill even a contemplative monastic’s life. That experience is remarkably (and surpisingly) similar in internet interactions between rabbis,monks, nuns, oblates, and lay-people engaged in sharing spiritual insights online. Even solitary hermits like myself are “in community” in this sense and the “purification process” is just the same, believe me! Some of the people with whom I am engaged in online relationships are as much a part of my “monastic” life as any real conventual companions and our shared ups and downs are no less keenly felt.

I would be the first to admit that being reprimanded by someone who is close to us can sometimes be rather like trying to let one’s parents teach us to drive a car. Such an attempt is, almost always, guaranteed to be a struggle of wills because sometimes the last thing we want is to be taught by someone who is close to us, however experienced they are. Sometimes this is because we don’t want to be doubly embarrassed if we fail. Sometimes it is because a close elder (in years or experience) or a parent seems more embarrassing, or even threatening, when we know that they are still going to be with us after the “lesson” is over. But I am sure that there isn’t one of us who would not prefer to be “taken aside for a little chat” by a caring friend rather than to be criticized in public or treated coldly in disciplinary way.

The driving lesson syndrome can also apply to things spiritual. “Teachers” from outside the “family” are usually easier to stomach when we need to be taught home truths and sometimes those teachers are not people but are instead the events we experience or even- perhaps especially - the words we hear or read.

In so many ways, some of our best teachers are the words we study in our own private Hegyon ha-Lev (lectio divina). Perhaps this is what the psalmist had in mind when writing:

"Your testimonies are my preoccupation.
They are my counsellors."
(Psalm 119:24)

The words of our Scriptures, the studied “messages” we might see or hear in our weekly Torah study; the randomly chosen text in a moment of personal confusion; the verse which enters our head unbidden but nags us to hear its message….these are the “friends” who may often be our most effective counselors and advisors. They may also speak a harsh message and cut like the paper they are written on, but the messages and signs we receive are given in the privacy of each individual heart and they cause no public embarrassment. Maybe when we are praying and reading a scriptural message, or attending to a song lyric that jumps out at us, or just noticing a strangely poignant sentence in a secular book we are reading….that too is a way in which God speaks “from afar” to bring about His transformations and revelations in the contemplative’s soul.

And there is “word” which can only be read or heard in contemplative prayer, for it is a Torah that is only written on one’s individual “heart”: His Love is not a cuddly toy which we embrace when we feel needy. It challenges and sometimes hurts, and the very best way for us to wrestle with all that is with Him, in private, with mutual and brutal honesty in the inter-personal prayerful conversation with God which we call hitbodedut.

We go in to meet to the God who is going out to meet us.

If we go part of the way, just a little, we will find Him coming towards us.

This is the case when we are feeling His Intimate Love in the Joy of praise or insight but also when we feel nothing in the midnight of despair or grief.

It also applies to the intensity and force with which He sometimes schools us in His ways.

In each case it is a God of Compassionate Mercy and Strict Judgment- both Chesed and Gevurah experienced together and simultaneously - that we are meeting.

If we “use” God only as a comforter when we feel down we will find ourselves turned back upon our selves. But if we judge ourselves too strictly, only His Mercy can restore a more balanced perception.

If we expect to be more “perfect” than we need be (or ever could be) in order to serve God usefully, we will find ourselves not Him. For all that is asked of us is that we each do our very best. But if we try to conceal our failings from God, His revelation will be postponed in apparent coldness.

The way things are is not always the way we would prefer them to be. God has reasons for having made things the way they are and we ought never to forget that He creates both light and darkness.

We know that we can never really “understand” God. Only if we serve God whole-heartedly but without expecting to own or control Him can we allow God to “be Himself” with us.

In a relationship - isn’t that what true love is all about?

The wonders of nature can focus our mind on the presence of God. Nature, in both its violent cruelty and its heart-easing beauty, is a reflection of its Creator. Those mountains reveal that in an exemplary way.

But the texts we read or hear, the people we meet and form relationships with, and the ordinary events of daily life…trials included… are reflections of God too.

The trials of the contemplative who seeks God are educational and sometimes harsh but they are lessons from God. They are lessons from God in the act of revealing Himself.

Regardless of the consequences- Isn’t that what contemplatives ask for?

I lift my eyes up to the hills.
From where shall come my help?
My help shall come from the Lord.
The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in
Now and forever.
Psalm 121

N R Davies
Jan 2nd 2011