The Temporal & Eternal Worlds
HAPPINESS VS. FRUSTRATION
—Rabbi Israel Chait—
TRANSCRIBED BY A STUDENT. THE PIRKEI AVOS LECTURES: 1990
At nighttime when one contemplates that he is moving on in years, in a few more years he is going to be nothing, and in 30 years no one will remember him, it is a frightening experience. One is guided by the instincts and fooled by fantasy. But one who lives in reality follows his tzelem Elohim (intellect) and lives a life of wisdom. Psychologically ill individuals must treat themselves just like individuals who are physically ill. But suggesting that psychologically or physically healthy people are happy, is incorrect. Psychological and physical health are unrelated to happiness, and such healthy people can be miserable. Our society tells unhappy people to visit psychologists. Judaism tells such people to talk to a chocham, a wise man.
People romanticize learning in a beautiful [scenic] area. However, inasmuch as one is involved in wisdom, he is oblivious to his panoramic surroundings. And inasmuch as one is enjoying the panorama, he is not learning. [Thus, the desire to learn in a beautiful area is not rational.] People without the ability to use their minds always seek pleasant surroundings; they feel that a beautiful home will provide this. But in truth, after a short while, they are dissatisfied with the same surrounding. Even if one is viewing the most beautiful scenery, after a while, he seeks to change his view. People must have change. But a chocham is involved in the world of the mind, and provided his surroundings are not disturbing his mind, his mind is engaged, and his location is irrelevant. His “view” is a different view. Thus, this idyllic picture of living in a beautiful place is another fantasy.
Provided that one is not psychologically ill, man is intrinsically and unhappy creature. Man’s instincts and mind place him in constant conflict, “And the wicked are as turbulent as the sea…” (Isaiah 57:20). Man is a creature of fantasy who is destined to live in reality. Tyrants lived turbulent lives. The greater one’s involvement in instincts, the less happy he must be because he is further from reality, and he cannot deny reality.
How does Torah remove man’s conflict? It is by draining off his energy from fantasy and providing satisfaction from his very perception of reality. Man is satisfied merely by beholding the view of reality [which he sees using his mind to perceive wisdom]. In this fashion, man’s energies are removed from fantasy. This is how Torah provides happiness to man. One definition of happiness is to reflect upon oneself and approve of one’s status, that he is a success. Torah’s [definition of] happiness is not self-reflection, but an existence enjoying the greatest satisfaction. Adam had a very happy existence; he partook of wisdom.
We had discussed Abraham’s humility, which he expressed in his words, “I am dust and ashes.” Why did Maimonides select those words to reflect Abraham’s humility, when he could have cited Abraham serving the three guests, where he bowed to them and fed them (Gen. 18)? The answer is that humility refers to one’s psychological reality, where one feels “I am nothing” like a speck of dust in the universe. But humble actions like serving the guest are not indications of total self-evaluation, whereas stating “I am dust and ashes” is a total self-evaluation.
Our society [adults] which caters to the emotions, gives to children what those people themselves desire but cannot have. The child is [embodying] society [members of society live vicariously through children]. Society gives children the fantasy that they are special because [members of] society desire this feeling themselves but cannot have it, since reality tells them that this is false [by everyone being special, nobody is special]. Society believes that if it can give to others what it desires for itself, steering others [children] into believing this pleasant notion will achieve the ultimate state for them. [However], Judaism does not endorse this approach [making a child feel special]. It is wrong to make the child feel special and reinforce his feeling of [high] self-worth. At an impressionable age the child will grow attached to the need to feel special and he will try to achieve this. [But as stated, if everyone feels special, no one truly is. And in the end such children will find disappointment.] These ideas learned in youth are hard to remove. It is important to raise a child according to Torah’s ideas. We have no fairytales in our system. No false ideas should be taught to a child. One is not allowed to lie to a child.
Another point is that socializing does not need to be learned; a person socializes by nature. Feeling that a child must learn to socialize is another nonsensical notion of our society. People grab onto notions and possibly destroy children. Latest studies show that a child should remain with his mother [as child requires this emotional connection and he should not commence preschool until the age of five or six].
Returning to the mishnah, Rashi says we see Bilam’s insatiable desires from his words: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God” (Num. 22:18). This displays Bilam’s Measure of his true desire. Maimonides quotes a different verse [that teaches Bilam’s love of he money], “because they hired Bilam” (Deut. 23:5). We must ask how Bilam’s being hired indicates his love of money. Everyone who works is hired, but being hired alone does not indicate a great desire for money. Bilam would not have accepted to curse of the Jews were it not for the money. Perhaps due to political reasons he would refrain from cursing the Jews, as such a curse might not bode well with others. But because of the money, despite political concerns, he wanted to curse the Jews. Thus, for Bilam to do what is distasteful to himself [political suicide] only for the money, displays his love of money.
Maimonides says that Bilam copulated with his donkey. Chazal say, “Adam endeavored to find a companion [sexually] among all cattle and beasts but found no satisfaction except in Eve” (Yevamos 63a) because man’s sexual satisfaction cannot be attained through the physical alone. Man requires psychological identification and therefore needs his sexual partner to be human. But Chazal teach that Bilam’s sexual activity was completely instinctual, explaining why Bilam did not require the involvement of another human in his sexual activity.
Bilam’s ego this seen from his words, “The word of Bilam son of Beor, the word of the man whose eye is true, the word of him who hears God’s speech, who beholds visions from the Almighty” (Num. 24:3,4). This is the highest haughtiness as Bilam knew that he did not deserve prophecy, and yet he converted that experience into a claim of his greatness: “God speaks to me.” Bilam claimed that he knew God’s thoughts. There is no greater haughtiness. Other areas of knowledge are limited, like the sciences, but this area [God’s knowledge] is unlimited [and Bilam claimed to have this knowledge].
The three character traits of our mishnah are a “good eye,” referring to one’s indifference towards wealth [he is satisfied]. This person [Abraham] values wealth only insofar as it is used for God’s plan for man. Otherwise, wealth has no value. The opposite is one who has a “bad eye.” This person must have all that he sees. His eye causes him to desire endless wealth.
The second is a “low soul”—nefesh shfaila—and refers to one who does not seek instinctual gratification, embodied in Abraham. The opposite is Bilam the wicked who was steeped in the instinctual.
And the third, a “low spirit”—ruach namucha—refers to one’s humility, “I am dust and ashes.”
Why is the opposite of a “wide soul” a “low soul?” Shouldn’t it be a “narrow soul?” Psychologically speaking there is good insight for the selection of the term “low soul.” One who does not desire endless pleasures must have a low soul. This means that the desire for endless satisfaction stems from a certain kind of haughtiness, a high soul [the opposite of a low soul]. This is referred to in Nedarim 9b:
Rabbi Shimon Hatzadik said: “In all my days as a priest, I never ate the guilt-offering of a ritually impure nazirite except for one occasion. One time, a particular man who was a nazirite came from the South and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was good looking, and the fringes of his hair were arranged in curls. I said to him: ‘My son, what did you see that made you decide to destroy this beautiful hair of yours by becoming a nazirite?’ He said to me: ‘I was a shepherd for my father in my city, and I went to draw water from the spring, and I looked at my reflection in the water and my evil inclination quickly overcame me and sought to expel me from the world. I said to myself: ‘Wicked one! Why do you pride yourself in a world that is not yours? Why are you proud of someone who will eventually be food in the grave for worms and maggots? I swear by the Temple service that I shall shave you for the sake of Heaven.’
I immediately arose and kissed him on his head. I said to him: ‘My son, may there be more who take vows of naziriteship like you among the Jewish people.’”
This story teaches that ego is related to desires. One who chases endless satisfaction must feel “the world is mine.” And one who is capable of withdrawing from desires it’s called a “low soul.” This is a psychological humility. This personality says to himself, “I exist here for a few years, and then I am worms and maggots.” This realistic understanding of his existence does not permit him to have fantasies. Fantasies stem from a misguided concept of the self, where if one does not obtain certain satisfactions, he is disappointed. However, a person with a realistic concept of the self will not be disappointed if he missed a certain desire. With the recognition of one’s ultimate demise, the desires don’t have a strong attraction. This is a world that does not belong to us. As one lives briefly [the intelligent person says], “What is the difference whether or not I enjoy this desire?” The importance attached to desires is based on the fantasy of an unrealistic position in the world; it is based upon haughtiness.
The [praiseworthy] humility we speak of is psychological and philosophical. For one to abandon the world of the desires, one must possess this kind of humility. The highest level of humility is intellectual humility: “I am dust and ashes.”
A “narrow soul”—nefesh kitzara—indicates minimal drive towards desires. But Chazal referred to Abraham’s perfection not with that title, but with a “low soul” to teach the additional idea of the cause of this perfection: humility. A “high soul”— nefesh gavoha—indicates haughtiness, but a “wide soul”—nefesh rachava—teaches the endless “wide” amount of desire of such a person. Therefore, a “wide soul” is employed by Chazal, not a “high soul.” Just by changing one word—in both cases—new insights are shared.
“Worms and maggots” is a psychological realization, whereas “dust and ashes” is philosophical. The mishnah’s terminology is precise.
Now we must ask why these three traits in specific are the marks of perfection and imperfection. Rabbeinu Yona says that these three traits include everything: they incorporate the entire concept of perfection [Abraham] and they are also indicative of the essence of evil [Bilam]. Torah’s description of Moshe’s greatness is humility: “And the man Moshe was more humble than all people on the face of the Earth” (Num. 12:3). In contrast, Torah says, “All those with haughty hearts are an abomination to God” (Prov. 16:5). “Abomination” because he’s furthest removed from God. These two characters should sufficiently define the greatest and worst human being respectively. Why then are the other traits in this mishnah necessary?
Judaism’s goal is that one constantly strives to recognize the self is a “low dark creature” has Maimonides describes:
…he is an infinitesimal creature, humble and dark, standing with an insignificant and slight knowledge in the presence of the All Wise (Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 2:2)
Moade Kattan cites one amora who prayed for two things: the wealth of another amora and the humility of another. Judaism has a strange kind of goal, to have this self-perception described by Maimonides above, where one looks forward to the day of having this realization, as achieving this would provide ultimate happiness. This is the goal of Judaism. Again, if this is the [praiseworthy] level, namely humility, why does our mishnah include the two other traits, and not simply isolate humility alone as the goal?
Although a person can be dichotomized—being a thinker in one area and not in another—Torah’s halachic and philosophical systems are designed to make one a chocham in all areas. There never was a talmid chocham who was wise in one area and not in other areas. Torah permeates the entire individual in every aspect of his life. And one’s personality is irrelevant.
It is possible to have the recognition of “I am dust and ashes” and yet, not be perfected. This is because a person can have a philosophical trend in his nature, where, when he reflects momentarily, he recognizes that he is but dust and ashes. But the rest of his life he expends his energies in areas that are not in line with the good. Maimonides says in his Laws of Teshuvah that one is judged on the greatness of his wisdom and his actions [there cannot be a dichotomy]. Maimonides had a letter written by one of his students saying that a Gentile enjoys Olam Haba based on having proper ideas and actions. Perfection includes wisdom and actions; both are needed. This means that it is possible to separate wisdom from action. A group of people once studied Maimonides’ Guide, and they stopped davening and observing mitzvos. They thought that philosophy was all that is needed to be perfected. They made a mistake: perfection requires both philosophical recognition, and also that one’s expenditure of energies are directed towards the good. Maimonides says that this is the purpose of mitzvah and halacha. People view halacha as restriction. But in truth it intends to direct man’s energies towards the good on a daily basis. It means the individual is expending his energies where he is constantly living with God’s wisdom in every aspect of his life. Once halacha is removed from a person’s life, there is also removed the constant expenditure of energy in the path towards God’s wisdom.
The greatest billionaire who might be brilliant in accumulating wealth cannot answer one question: “Why are you doing this [constantly working]?” He draws a complete blank. Ultimately, what is wealth? It is the sublimated form of all the desires, including ego, power, fame etc. A psychologist explained why wealth does not make a person happy: It is because it does not satisfy the [raw] desire since wealth is a sublimated form of the real desire. [Man’s true object of desire is sex, fame, ego, etc., and wealth is not one of these, but a disguised attempt to attain them. Therefore, wealth will not satisfy man.]
The person who makes the greatest use of wealth and benefits from it most is the talmid chocham. He uses it to relieve himself from work and mundane activities, in order to engage in Torah. The mishnah first addresses sublimation/wealth, a “good eye,” the example of Abraham: a satisfied, perfected person who is not involved in the sublimated attempts at chasing the desires. The mishnah then identifies a second perfection: a “low spirit,” humility, “dust and ashes.” This is philosophical perfection. And the last perfection is that of the instinctual: a “low soul,” one who does not chase the raw instincts. Why does the mishnah order them this way?
Ultimate perfection is philosophical; all hinges around the “low spirit”— humility—explaining why it is placed in the center. But to attain that perfection, one’s energies cannot be expended in the instinctual, or in the sublimated form of the instinctual. Why is this sublimated form, the “good eye” [satisfaction/not seeking wealth] listed first? It is because most people are involved in the sublimated form. Thus, we have philosophical perfection of humility on one side, and on the other side, the psychological form of gratification through sublimation, and also the pure instinctual desires.
Abraham was the greatest of the patriarchs and was the originator of the system. This explains why we conclude the first blessing in the Shmoneh Essray with “Shield of Abraham” [excluding Isaac and Jacob, although mentioned earlier in the very same blessing]. The originator of a system is the greatest [member of that system]. Even though someone after him takes the system further, the originator required the greatest ingenuity.
From Jacob we see that it is false to assume that following a Torah life ensures a comfortable existence. Jacob had many troubles, from his brother Esav, Lavan, Rachel, through losing Joseph. Gentiles have the fantasy that believing in their god will ensure a trouble-free life. In Judaism, our leaders accepted life as it was: each having different circumstances. But living with those God-given circumstances, they used to their wisdom and courage to live according to intelligence. That is the philosophy of Judaism. Other religions want God to save them from the perils of reality; idolatry is motivated by fear. But Judaism is motivated by a pursuit of wisdom in reality; a religion demanding tremendous courage. A person cannot help his state [his health, parents, siblings, and those whom he encounters]. All one can hope for is to have the courage and ability to follow God’s wisdom. [To the intelligent/perfected person] the greatest treasure is to spend his days according to wisdom, no matter the situation he must confront. That is the philosophy of Judaism: the opposite of the philosophy of idolaters and the rest of the entire world. They withdraw into a world of escapism, thinking that God will create a situation totally in-line with all their desires. That is idolatrous. In truth, man doesn’t know the situations that lie before him and he does not expect God to guarantee a life of pleasure and comfort. Of course, one following Torah prays for a life most conducive to pursuing wisdom. But he accepts reality. Jacob told Pharaoh that his years were “few and difficult” (Gen. 47:9), but he didn’t complain. He merely stated fact: “This was my existence.”
Now the mishnah addresses what the ultimate reward is of these two lifestyles:
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE DISCIPLES OF ABRAHAM, OUR FATHER, AND THE DISCIPLES OF BILAM, THE WICKED? THE DISCIPLES OF ABRAHAM, OUR FATHER, ENJOY THIS WORLD, AND INHERIT THE WORLD TO COME, AS IT IS SAID: “I WILL ENDOW THOSE WHO LOVE ME WITH SUBSTANCE, I WILL FILL THEIR TREASURIES” (PROV. 8:21). BUT THE DISCIPLES OF BILAM, THE WICKED, INHERIT GEHENOM, AND DESCEND INTO THE NETHERMOST PIT, AS IT IS SAID: “FOR YOU, GOD, WILL BRING THEM DOWN TO THE NETHERMOST PIT THOSE MURDEROUS AND TREACHEROUS MEN; THEY SHALL NOT LIVE OUT HALF THEIR DAYS; BUT I TRUST IN YOU” (PSALMS 55:24).
The students of Bilam do not enjoy this world and ultimately inherit a pit of destruction. But the students of Abraham enjoy this world. Chazal did not have a negative attitude towards this world; they had the proper perspective. Horiyus says that righteous people don’t have this world. But it was asked, “What is wrong with enjoying both worlds?” Torah doesn’t negate this world but recognizes it for what it is: a temporal state. [Perhaps the resolve of the apparent contradiction between our mishnah saying that Abraham enjoyed this world, and the gemara in Horiyus that says righteous people don’t have this world, is of a quantitative nature: Abraham related to this world properly and enjoyed it for what it is, while the gemara in Horiyus means that tzaddikim don’t overly indulge. “They don’t have this world” means not over indulging, nor viewing it as an ends. It’s not their ultimate value.]
Idolaters negate this world; they feel that pleasures are to be negated. It is a reaction formation against their true desires. Achitophel was a political genius. If you would seek his advice, he would advise you just as the Urim vTumim [located within the high priest’s breastplate, anciently consulted for divine guidance]. Achitophel was able to logically figure out matters:
In those days, the advice which Achitophel gave was like matters sought from God; so was all the advice of Ahithophel to David and to Absalom (II Samuel 16:23).
Achitophel was always correct. He was King David’s advisor. But when King David’s son Absalom rebelled, Achitophel joined him and advised Absalom against King David. And of course, the advice he gave was correct device. King David then sent Chushai to infiltrate Absalom’s camp. Absalom sought Chushai’s advice about attacking King David then and there. Chushai presented his case well and said, “This one time Achitophel’s advice [to attack David] is wrong; no one can be right all the time.” Chushai [lying to Absalom, attempting to protect King David] said that attacking King David now will be disastrous: “No matter how exhausted he is, he has the courage of lion. It is better to wait and gather all of the Jews and then attack David.” But Achitophel said, “Now David is weak, and we should attack, and he will be destroyed.” King David prayed to God that He should intervene in Achitophel’s advice, that the Jews with Absalom should not follow him, but they should follow Chushai. And that is what occurred. The moment Achitophel so that his advice was not followed, he committed suicide because he knew that it was all over for him [as he rebelled against the king]. This is where the verse regarding Bilam is applied: Achitophel did not live out half his years. However, that was a particular case where God’s providence sided with King David; God caused the people’s emotions to lean more towards Chushai’s advice.
But some people question that if it were not for that circumstance [God’s intervention], Achitophel and Absalom—as well as other evildoers—would still be around enjoying success. The same people say regarding Al Capone that they caught him on income tax evasion, but had he not been caught, he would have enjoyed success. Therefore, these people say that this rule [of evildoers being cut down before the time] is not conclusive. And people can also [strengthen their argument and] point to a rasha who did in fact find great success and longevity. Therefore, the question remains on our mishnah that says otherwise, that students of Bilam will always inherit gehenom and descend to an empty pit. It appears this does not happen all time. But the answer is this verse:
For You, God, will bring them down to the nethermost pit those murderous and treacherous men; they shall not live out half their days; but I trust in You.
This means that this fate is inevitable. We must understand Judaism’s definition of evil. The world says, “Let your conscience be your guide.” This means to say that anything one’s conscience values, must be correct. [However,] one raised among the mafia feels guilty if he doesn’t kill someone [clearly exposing one’s conscience as an invalid moral compass]. But Judaism’s definition of evil is not based on the conscience.
There are two worlds: the temporal and the eternal. The temporal world is the world of the instincts and the psyche. The world of the eternal is the world of the soul, the world of intelligence. “Evil” is [defined as] making a simple mistake: viewing the world of the temporal as the good [wrongly feeling that this is the essence and the eternal]. This is Judaism’s definition of evil. Judaism’s definition of the good is recognizing what is truly eternal, the nature of the temporal, and having the correct perspective. What happens when one errs and thinks that the world of the temporal is really the eternal good? That person immediately places all his life’s energies into the life of the temporal.
The temporal is a strange [unstable] phenomenon, which depends on many circumstances. Because of his very nature and definition, a person constantly strives to make the temporal into something that it cannot be. He tries to take that which is not of a permanent nature, which depends on circumstances and is subject to the world of chance, and carve out something eternal from it. But this cannot occur for several reasons. One is that as the temporal world is subject to certain conditions [out of one’s control] a person’s plan does not work out. There are many variables that do not synchronize [that are vital] to cater to one’s wishes. It ends up that one’s entire life in pursuit of the temporal is spent in frustration and dissatisfaction.
Chazal said beautiful statement:
Rabbi Yudan said in the name of Rabbi Ayvu, “Man does not leave this world with half of his desires in his hand: if he has 100 he wants to make it into 200; if he has 200 he wants to make it into 400” (Koheles Rabba 1:13).
One does not live through this existence attaining even half his desires. This is because the temporal world is constructed this way. Every new person who arrived on this planet, who tried to achieve this, has failed. There might be moments of success, but in the end one always fails. The temporal nature of the world does not lend itself to satisfying man. It depends on certain conditions and chance, and it cannot be worked out.
…murderous and treacherous men; they shall not live out half their days…
This does not mean that one must die at 35 years old. If one lives to 70 or 80 and most of his life was lived in pain, he too is not attaining half his desires. His lifespan is irrelevant. Bilam dying before age 35 is merely an illustration to which Chazal attach the idea of not living to half of one’s years. Achitophel too died young. But had he enjoyed longevity it would not matter. He too did not attain one half of his desires. He put all his energies into this one moment when he could achieve his “success.” That success depended on conditions, chance, on Absalom, and on a good meeting with advisors…would they accept his advice? But in the end the people followed Chushai. People have many “Chushai’s” in their lives. Why did Achitophel fail? It was not because of Chushai, but because of the universal “Chushai” [unexpected, destructive circumstance] that lurks in every area of the world of the temporal. That is why Achitophel failed. A person who is myopic and shortsighted thinks, “Had Al Capone not been caught on tax evasion, he would have made it.” [But that is not true since the temporal world does not conform to human desires. Other situations would arise to subvert Al Capone’s plans. A person’s plan for attaining his desires assumes the presence, timing and precise functioning of too many undecided variables, all of which will never conform to man’s wishes. Man’s attempt to attain his desires must fail. Torah wants us to realize that it is wrong to point at only one thing and blame it alone for our failure in attaining temporal desires. Rather, one should recognize that it is impossible that all matters upon which we depend for temporal satisfaction will align themselves precisely at the right moment to ensure that satisfaction.] Albert Einstein said, “I entered the world of physics because I don’t have patience for the regular world, which is very frustrating.” The only place which works out for man, that is in-line with his desires and his emotional needs and energies, is the world of the eternal. And if a person works it out in that world, if he arranges his life to focus primarily on God’s wisdom and good character traits, he enjoys the temporal world too. This is because he does not invest so much effort into the temporal world to try and squeeze out of it something it is incapable of providing. On the contrary, he enjoys the temporal for what it is; it is not the essence of where he applies his energies. When the weather is pleasant, he enjoys it, but not because he views good weather as something that will provide ultimate happiness and pleasure. That would not be sufficient to satisfy person. [This answers the contradiction above between our mishnah which says that Abraham enjoyed this world, while Horiyus said, “tzaddkim don’t have this world.” Abraham and tzaddikim enjoy this world for what is truly offers, but they don’t “have this world” as an ends, where it is all they desire.]
What did Achitophel do the moment he saw that his plan failed? He hung himself. Why does Judaism view suicide as a terrible thing? It evokes thoughts of empathy. One who commits suicide says, “There exists only the temporal world, and if I cannot have it, I will kill myself.” One person who had been very active, a mountain climber, had grown ill. He committed suicide. His suicide conveyed that his essence was the physical world. Hemingway committed suicide because he could not have his desires. And when the temporal world was gone from his life, life had no meaning to him. I do not refer to one who kills himself due to psychological issues or an unconscious force out of his control. I refer to an Achitophel, an intelligent man who has control and performs a rational suicide. There is a neurotic suicide from which Torah does not hold one accountable because he has no control over himself. But Achitophel said that since there’s nothing but the world of the temporal, when he saw that he lost it, he killed himself. This is the meaning of the verse “For You, God, will bring them down to the nethermost pit.”
Regarding the tzaddik, he enjoys the opposite fate:
I will endow those who love Me with substance [yaish], I will fill their treasuries (Prov. 8:21).
Typically, the word “yaish” refers to a predicate, as in “there is [yaish] the power in my hand” (Gen. 31:29). But here yaish refers to an object.
Perhaps this is the greatest fundamental of Judaism. A person on an infantile level can “feel” a closeness to God. In his imagination, a child does not know what God is. He extracts something from his experience and imagines an idea of God. But when one matures, he realizes that his infantile concept of God possessing emotions is false. His previous notion of how he related to God seems difficult, impossible and absurd. That’s why those people who studied Maimonides’ Guide stopped davening. For they now understood that their infantile notion of God—a warm father in the sky with emotions—was wrong and idolatrous. Thereafter, they could not daven. But Judaism demands that one recognize that God cannot be known in any manner: “For man cannot know me while alive” (Exod. 33:20). Moshe could only see the patterns of God’s actions [but he could not perceive any positive concept of God]: “…be most careful, since you saw no form when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire” (Deut. 4:15). We cannot have any type of image of God; no figment of imagination whatsoever extrapolated from this world, be it a physical form or that God has emotions. These cannot in any way pertain to the Creator of universe, the Source behind all the laws of the universe.
This Creator becomes so far removed from us. How then can we possibly relate to Him? It is a problem, and yet we say, “God is close to all His callers, to all who call Him in truth” (Psalms 145:18). How is God “close” to those who call Him? One area in Psalms sums it up more than any other verse:
Those who keep far from You perish; You annihilate all who estrange themselves from You. Closeness to God is good to me; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may recount all Your works. (Psalms 73:27,28)
Judaism has a different idea of closeness to God. Just as the God of Judaism cannot be perceived in any physical or emotional sense, but He is the God who is more real than any kind of existence…so too, the non-physical laws of nature are more real than a stone in this following example. When a stone falls to the Earth and we describe its path, that stone is guided [downward] by some kind of immaterial existence. That existence [natural law] is responsible for every stone following the identical path of descent. The physical stone is less real than the law behind the stone, because a stone can be destroyed, but the laws are more real. And God, the source of all wisdom is most real, the real existence. Maimonides says, “There is an existing God” (Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 1:1). He is most real. Judaism demands that a person recognize that concept of “the real” that appeals to the mind and not the real that appeals to the emotions. That is the challenge of Judaism. The sin of the Gold Calf was an attempt to support the false view with a physical entity.
But we must take a step further. In his Guide, Maimonides was trying to convey an idea I think missed by most readers. He says, as Torah says, that the reality of God is only perceived by our minds. When we say that God is close to us, His closeness is more real than any closeness we can entertain or have, more real than any kind of closeness we can imagine. God’s closeness to us is more real than that of a spouse, a friend or a teacher, which are physical and psychological in nature. But God’s closeness is tied to a human being’s essence; it is not a material closeness, but that closeness is more real than any closeness a person can imagine or desire, a closeness one cannot feel, but is real. Judaism demands one recognize this and understand it. That is what King David meant by, “those distanced from God will be destroyed” because they are not partaking of what is real. “Closeness to God is good to me” is a closeness only perceivable by the mind. [King David’s sentiment was] “for I know God is that which is real,” and man possesses a metaphysical component that can relate to God. Therefore, there must be the closest relationship, the only real closeness a person can experience because it pertains to man’s essence which is related to the reality behind of the entire universe—God.
How does a person achieve closeness to God? It takes place when one studies Torah. In his Guide, Maimonides says that a prophet, when learning, is not the same as when he is not learning. That is the metaphor of the palace (book iii, chap. li), teaching that there is a reality of closeness to God that can only be expressed through a metaphor, but it exists.
A second away this closeness exists is when one is standing in prayer for God. He recognizes the presence of the Creator and it is an opportunity for him to properly formulate his desires in life.
The third way one is close to God’s by keeping the Torah: following the system that God gave to this world as the perfect system for man’s perfection. In these three matters man is close to God. He partakes of a closeness that I can’t possibly describe in an emotional sense. But it exists and it is the only real closeness man can experience. Rationality dictates that in these three matters man must be close to God.
If man is involved in God’s thoughts—Torah study—he must be close to God because he can approach God. If man is standing before God in prayer, organizing his values and life, and he asks God for particular needs to draw him closer to God, he must, at that moment, be close to God. God relates to him and we know that is based on the prayer’s verse, “One who hears prayer”—shomaya tefilah. God listens to every prayer. There is a link that exists that is real.
And the third way of being close to God is following His plan: Torah. Anyone committed to following that plan must of necessity be close to God.
Judaism demands man to rise above the imagination and attach his emotions to a kind of idea of closeness that only his mind [and not his emotions] can recognize.
I will endow those who love Me with substance [yaish], I will fill their treasuries (Prov. 8:21).
Yaish refers to existence. One cannot describe the good that God gives man. It is above the emotions and the senses. The only thing one can say about God’s good is that it is real; it exists. It means that those who are close to God will inherit that which is real, that which exists. And you cannot say anything more about it. This explains why these verses are included when one concludes a tractate: “We labor and they labor”… “to endow those who love Me with substance,” the world of wisdom, the abstract world. What is the end result [of those pursuing God’s wisdom, the eternal world]? Real existence, “yaish.” And what is the result of a life chasing the temporal and physical?
For You, God, will bring them down to the nethermost pit, those murderous and treacherous men; they shall not live out half their days.