Longing for Hashem

Nov 26, 2014

Many of the character traits (especially humility) are presented in the sources in quite an extreme form. Often it is difficult to connect with such an intense level of self-negation, giving, self-control, and the like. It is easy to be overcome by the gap between where we are and where the ideal is. There is a discussion of “longing and thirst” in the Netivot Shalom (vol. 1, p. 300) that can be helpful for dealing with this problem.

“The pious and men of deeds saw the trait of thirsting and longing for G-d (‘tzimaon v’hishtokekut’) as a branch of self-negation (‘bitul hayeishut’) — for one who has not merited the level [of self-negation to G-d],” writes the Netivot Shalom. Though he is still not cleansed of any ego involvement, his desire to be close to G-d itself creates the connection.

He quotes the Shem Mishmuel (Parshat Kitissa) who quotes his father, the Avnei Nezer, zt”l: “It is impossible that one who longs for G-dliness will be in Gehinnom; and if he is, I guaranty that his desire will take him out of there.” The Shem Mishmuel explains that longing for holiness creates a connection with G-d that is inconsonant with the existence of Gehinnom.

The Baal Shem Tov once said that a person is where his thoughts are. [The Shem Mishmuel showed that this is based in halakha. If on a Friday afternoon one is travelling and says, “I will spend Shabbat by a particular tree (that is still far away from him),” his 2000 cubit Shabbat travelling range is determined from that tree.] That is the core of this trait. One who, when asked what his real desire is, will answer, to be close to G-dliness, is already half the way there.

There is, however, a level where this trait exists even on an ideal level. Man by definition cannot come to know G-d and will always remained distanced from Him. This is part of the human condition, that “No man can see Me and live.” King David in Tehillim (Psalm 63) expresses how he is overcome by longing for G-d. As he walks through the dry and barren Judaen Desert he cries out, “Elokim, You are my G-d. I seek You out. My soul thirsts for You. My flesh yearns for You in a land that is dry and tired, without water.”

Yearning and longing for G-d is the main theme of Yedid Nefesh, the song written by the 16th century Kabbalist Rav Elazar Azkari zt”l. “. . . My soul is lovesick for You. Oh G-d, please heal it by showing it the pleasantness of Your shine. Then it will strengthen and be healed and have eternal joy.” Later on, “How much have I yearned to speedily see the splendor of Your power. This my heart desires. Have mercy on it and do not hide Yourself.” Common custom is to sing this before Shabbat. Right before the holiness of Shabbat sets in we pray, “Reveal Yourself. . . Let the earth shine with Your Honor . . . . The time has come to show Your Love . . . ” However, we also are accustomed to sing it on Shabbat afternoon during the third meal, as we reach the heights of holiness. Still then, our thirst is unquenched, for we are still bound by the human condition.

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