Treasuring the Concealed (Nov 2011)

Contemplatives and practical students of the Jewish mystical tradition are sometimes described as being engaged in a “spiritual-search”,the implication being that they are seekers who are engaged in a continuous process of discovery and not an elite who have somehow "arrived". A Jewish contemplative is ever engaged on a journey towards God and yet, as a Jew, he or she realises that the journey can never end. How could it when it leads to the One who is “eternally ever-present”? Such infinity is not something we can ever grasp or possess.

The Jewish contemplative hopes to be granted an experience of the Eternal One but accepts that this experience can only ever be partially understood. It is an encounter with a deeply veiled awareness of a Presence whose actual Being is beyond our comprehension. Most Jewish mystics experience only the very merest hint of this veiled Presence, and yet the memory of that fleeting moment is often sufficient to inspire a whole lifetime of contemplative yearning for further contact.

Such a motivating experience is an experience of devekus (cleaving and attachment to God). It is not a superior state of human perception and understanding achieved by any practice or method of our own devising and it cannot be taught. It is a form of moral and spiritual contemplative bonding which simply makes us useful to the Creator. Its purpose is to show us that we are in a relationship with One who requires our effort, our loving compliance, and our determination to be made more “in His image” as each day passes.

In a nutshell, when we cease to see ourselves or focus on our own needs, but look in God’s direction and hope to meet Him in some way, we will find ourselves looking back through His eyes. This is perhaps the closest we can come to "enlightenment" and experiencing it is a process which never ends.

If there is to be any enlightenment on a Jewish mystical path, it does not consist in arriving at an all-encompassing grasp of the Divine master-plan- rather it is something which is most usually encountered in moments of prophetic or inspirational intuition which can then nourish our otherwise transient and changeable experience. As Jewish contemplatives, we are expected to draw nourishment from the deeply buried memory, the muffled echo, and the glimmering after-glow of Sinai as it presents itself to us in the ordinary but often synchronous events of each and every day. To see and hear the unbearable thunder of the Voice of Sinai in every moment was beyond us then and it is beyond us now. Our blessing is to be spoon fed digestible measures of spiritual manna and to hear the message of that voice as a still small whisper, a barely distinguished hint, a kol d’mama dakah.

When we daven or meditate, when we spend time with our God  in discursive hitbodedut or reflective hitbonenut , we do not do so because we want to achieve something for ourselves-we pray because we are commanded to and because we wish to take our observance of the commandments to “cleave to God” and to “love Him with all our heart, soul, and strength” to their fullest and most authentically Jewish levels. Not as an act of philosophy, spirituality, or mysticism per se, but as an act of religious service.

The effectiveness of this realistic and humble approach to the spiritual and mystical journey has its root in the process known as bittul haYesh: There is no point in demanding that our thirst for total control over the wildness of existence be quenched at all costs. Our desire for certitudes and a clear vision of a spiritual “God-particle” is certain to miss the "target" as the Target is simply beyond our reach and skill. It is an approach which reminds Jews of their own place as the devoted servants of a commanding and loving God. The concealment of God is not a barrier to be breached, nor is it a negative situation which we ought to try to “remedy”. It is the Kevod of HaShem made partially accessible. It is a gift to be treasured.

In Tehillim we read:

“Wonderfully concealed are your testimonies,
Therefore my soul has treasured them.”
Psalm 119: 129

The words of the Living God are pathways to walk on, shining lights to inspire us or guide our choices; flowing rivers to nourish our seminal hopes and growing thoughts; and they are a Tree of Life which is planted in heaven yet intended to bear fruit on this earth. In other words, they are a process not contained by tangible items or mental conceptualisation and the One who makes them has made them as ultimately beyond our full comprehension as His own Being is and always will be.

This in itself is a treasure, and being aware of it enables us to be both the beneficiaries and the transmitters of the Hidden Light we are then freed to hold in our embrace despite never being able to grasp it as a hoarded possession.

One who treasures the concealed word of HaShem in the Torah haNistar in their prayer and meditation and who seeks to live the Torah haNigleh in their daily study and work knows that this Torah cannot ever be used as a spade to dig with, nor as a crown to be hoarded away for personal pleasure.

All of a Jew’s relationship with HaShem is for the sake of the outflowing of the Divine into our world. The reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah, and even the blessings which are granted specifically to Israel are ultimately for the sake of all nations and for the sake of all creation. As the Berditchever Rebbe reminds us:

“When one nullifies oneself completely and attaches one's thoughts to Nothingness, a new sustenance flows to all universes. This sustenance did not exist previously.”

These words are most encouraging for those of us who make their prayers their main contribution to the tikkun (healing) of the world’s woes yet often wonder if their endeavours are of any use.  Jewish Contemplatives then, are both the beneficiaries and the transmitters of the Hidden Light. The transmission is most effectively brought about when we are as observant and as whole-hearted in yiddishkeit as we possibly can be.

I’d like to finish this short reflection on the “Concealed” with a comment on a few verses from the current week’s Torah Parshah and Haftarah (Parshas Chayei Sarah)

In Parshas Chayei Sarah we read:

“This comes from HaShem
We cannot declare it to be good or bad”
Genesis 24:50

In Haftaras Chayei Sarah we read:

“Let her stand before the king
And be an intimate companion for him.”
I Kings 1:2

The Torah verse tells us to submit to whatever might befall us, whether it is perceived as good or as bad, for who are we to judge or to try to know without the long-sight of Providence?

The Haftarah verse tells us that we are both servants and friends.
We are willing tools in God’s hands if we offer our lives and prayers to Him,
To “stand before him” is to be available and at our Master’s service.
But we are blessed in so far as we are invited to “sit at His table”,
To be close to Him through a deveykut which is (perhaps shockingly) mutual.

The Psalm 119 verse which I quoted earlier-
“Wonderfully concealed are your testimonies,
Therefore my soul has treasured them.”
Psalm 119: 129
-tells us that God’s “decrees” for our life-history are not known to us,
Yet we ought to rejoice that our “fate” is in such good care.
We make our own choices and face our trials, that is true,
But He is our watchful and guiding shepherd at every moment.

The messages hidden in the “testimonies” of God are often very well hidden indeed.
They are beneath the surface of the ordinary events in our lives.
They are in the familiar texts of our prayer-books and bibles.
They are in the often bewildering insights and intuitions
which we receive in contemplative prayer.
They are also in the insights of our prayerful study of Torah in meditation:
Often, such insights are at first dimly perceived,
But they can dazzle us when we suddenly “see” what we are being told/shown,
Each of us individually seeing something personally spoken to us in intimacy.

In Parshas Chayei Sarah
Our father Isaac goes out at dusk to meditate in the field.
At dusk, ordinary things are often bathed in a soft focus
And we can see their inner light more accurately.
At dusk ordinary things can sometimes fade into the half-gloom
And we turn inward to see our inner light in a more heightened way.

The growing darkness is sometimes our best friend and not an annoyance or an enemy.
It often leads to the place where we can see that our clouded perception of God is not just the adoption of a realistic approach-
The cloud of darkness prevents us making God in our own image.
It is actually closer to the Truth of God’s nature than any detailed theology ever could be.

The Divine which is concealed will always elude our attempt to grasp it.
But we can let God, the Hidden, grasp us
Through our loyalty as servants
And hold our hands as friends,
Thus, we can be held by the Hidden and know some of the power and beauty of our God.

When we experience an ecstatic sexual or sensual feeling
we reflexively close our eyes to improve our mind’s savouring of the physical event.

In contemplative prayer our eyes are metaphorically shut,
But we may discover that we actually “see” better in the dark.
We may not be able to see God’s plans for us
But being “kept in the dark” is not always a negative thing.

A contemplative is happy to know that the answer is not (necessarily) “42”.
A contemplative is not looking for answers but is allowing God to wherever...

Being in a Divine/human relationship in which we are informed on a “strictly need to know” basis is not because we are being kept in a subservient state of ignorance. As contemplatives, we are enlightened by a form of loving revelation whose brilliance we could never bear without the embrace of the Cloud of Unknowing.

This is the treasure of the Hidden One.
Our task is to make sure we don’t hoard it for ourselves,
But allow God to make us into transparent conductors of its Light.

N R Davies
November 13 2011

( from a commentary on Parshat Chayei Sarah (Oct 21 2010) written for the Community of Jewish Contemplatives)