Paradoxical Faith: Ḥasidic Masters on Closeness to God in Moments of Distance

אבינו אבינו איך נלך כי השומר עומד בשער המלך

Our Father, Our father! How can we come to you? The guard stands watch at the royal gate!

—Niggun Kol BeYa’ar (Attributed to the Shpoler Zeide (1725-1812))

So often in our lives we seek a sense of emotional closeness to God, yet we feel so far away. In times of need or inner pain we wish to feel God’s presence, but it is not to be found. Numerous Ḥasidic masters have sought to ameliorate this sense of distance, articulating a model of what may be called “Paradoxical Faith”.  Through internalizing their teachings one may strengthen their faith, finding comfort in times of religious crisis.

I would like to share two teachings, one from Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, the other from Rabbi Levi Yitzḥak of Berdychiv.

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz (1823-1900) was born into a rabbinic family in Lithuania. He was a child prodigy of incomparable genius,  having already authored wide-ranging commentaries on Jewish law by the time he was a teenager. In 1843, marital complications led him to travel across Eastern Europe in search of 100 rabbinic signatories in order to remarry after his first wife refused divorce. It was on this journey that he came into contact with Rabbi Mordeḥai Yosef of Izhbitza, author of the Mei HaShiloaḥ, who became his teacher. In 1848, at age 25, he published one of his most popular works, Tzidkat HaTzaddik, a collection of short essays on various topics written from a Ḥasidic perspective. Rabbi Tzadok’s works are distinguished by the quality of his writing and complexity of thought. While most works of Ḥasidut are Hebrew adaptations of sermons originally delivered orally in Yiddish, circumstances which contribute to their poor literary quality, Rabbi Tzadok wrote in a rich poetic Hebrew, with allusions to the vast corpus of rabbinic literature woven into nearly every line.

In Tzidkat HaTzaddik §141 he offers words of encouragement to one found in a moment of religious crisis:

  ההעלם שמגיע לאדם הוא נראה לכאורה ראיה שגם החשק והחיות שהיה לו מקודם היה שקר כי שפת אמת תכון לעד

The state of [God] being hidden which comes upon a person appears at first glance to indicate that the [religious] desire and vitality which they had previously enjoyed was false, for “the lip of truth shall be established forever.” (Proverbs 12:19)

In the previous section, Rav Tzadok had expounded upon this verse from Proverbs as indicating that the final state of any matter is indicative of its true nature, even at earlier stages. A person feeling distant from God is struck by a double blow: both the distance from God itself, and disillusionment and doubt over the authenticity of any prior religious experience they had enjoyed. Perhaps it was all an illusion.

אבל באמת אדרבה על ידי זה הקדוש ברוך הוא בונה שתכון לעד החשק כאשר משיג בהעלם שהוא בהסתר פנים מהשם יתברך ומתחנן מהשם יתברך שיאיר לו הרי כבר אינו בהעלם שעל זה נאמר תכלית הידיעה שלא נדע

However the truth is that on the contrary the blessed Holy One is engineering that the desire be established forever. For when one apprehends in their hiddenness that they are in a state of concealment from God and entreats God that God illuminate for them — then they are no longer in a state of hiddenness. Of this it is said that the ultimate knowledge is that we not know.

The very recognition of God’s absence from one’s life is indicative of one’s ability to sense God. When one realizes that they are far from God, then God has already been found, for the very longings of the religious seeker serve to generate the presence of the divine. An atheist does not sense God’s absence in their life.

The true answer for one seeking the unknowableGod—is to realize that the deepest questions cannot be answered, and to be comfortable in that uncertainty. For the ultimate state of knowing is to realize that we will never know.

ודבר זה נקרא ענוה והוא מדריגה היותר גדולה כנודע ונאמר תהלים (ל”ז י”א) וענוים יירשו ארץ פירוש ירושה אין לה הפסק (בבא בתרא קכ”ט ע״ב) וכמו שנאמ במשה רבינו ע”ה שהיה ענו מכל האדם לא כהתה עינו וגו’ (דברים ל”ד ז’) שלא היה לו למעלותיו שום הפסק ודייקא על ידי זה נעשה שתיכון לעד

This matter is called “humility” and is the highest level, as is known. And it is stated, “The humble shall inherit the earth” (Psalms 37:11), the meaning of “inheritance” being “without interruption”. Similarly it is said of Moses our teacher of blessed memory humblest of all people: “His eyes did dim,” (Deuteronomy 34:7), for his great stature was without interruption. And it is specifically in this manner that [religious desire and vitality] are established forever.

True humility is to realize one’s epistemological limitations. Once one has reached such humility, the unanswerable questions will no longer trouble them. Moses, prophet par excellence, possessed such humility, and consequently never felt himself “interrupted”. If one’s moments of religious crisis can themselves be transformed into moments of faith, then nothing can take one away from God.

Rabbi Levi Yitzḥak of Berdychiv

Rabbi Levi Yitzḥak of Berdychiv (1740-1810) was a student of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch. As an outstanding member of the third generation of disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Levi Yitzḥak enjoys a special place in the pantheon of Ḥasidic masters. In a sermon delivered on Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Levi hauntingly describes the distance from God felt by those who are closest:

״והתקדשתם והייתם קדושים כי קדוש אני״.(ויקרא יא, מד) ועיין במדרש (ויקרא רבה כד, ט): יכול כמוני, תלמוד לומר ״כי קדוש אני״, קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם, הרצון בזה, כי כל מה שאדם הוא דבוק בקדושת הבורא יתברך, הוא יודע בעצמו שהוא מרוחק מקדושת הבורא יתברך, ובמה הוא יודע שהוא מקורב לקדושת הבורא, כשהוא משיג קדושת הבורא ברוך הוא ויודע שהוא מרוחק מקדושת הבורא ברוך הוא. וזהו יכול כמוני, תלמוד לומר כי קדוש אני, קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם

“You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44). See the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 24:9): “I might have thought this meant that you would be [holy] like me—the verse comes to teach us, ‘for I am holy’—my holiness is above your holiness.” The intended meaning is this: However much a person is attached [davuk] to the holiness of God, they themselves know that they are in fact distant from God. How might one know that they are close to God? When they achieve perception of the holiness of God and realize how distant they are from the holiness of God. This is what is meant by “I might have thought this meant that you would be [holy] like me—the verse comes to teach us, ‘for I am holy’—my holiness is above your holiness.

May we merit to possess true humility, to realize that as much as we seek to know God, we shall never truly know. Indeed, our sense of distance is itself a sign of closeness. With this awareness internalized, our spiritual lives stand be enriched immeasurably.

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