The Spiritual Searching of Our Age

In an introductory letter, I mentioned that we use the term “Hashem” as a respectful way of referring to the most sacred Hebrew Divine Name – the Name that expresses the Divine attribute of compassion (Sifri to Deuteronomy 3:24). In this letter, I mention another Hebrew Divine Name, Elo--him, that refers to the Divine attribute of justice (ibid), and when we are not reading from our Sacred Scriptures or traditional prayers, we pronounce it as, Elokim.


Dear Friends,


As I mentioned in the letter about Jerusalem and the Summer of Love, many spiritually-searching young people left their prosperous suburban neighborhoods at the beginning of the summer of 1967 and moved to run-down, inner-city neighborhoods in search of a more meaningful and spiritual life. This spiritual searching was not just a rejection of the materialistic emphasis of the modern western culture of that period; it was also a rejection of the modern “religion” of this culture which idolized the human being as the sovereign of the earth and which proclaimed that human science and technology will bring peace, as well as prosperity, to the entire world. Beginning with the late 1960’s, a growing number of people began to question that premise, as they became more aware that human science and technology can becomes forces of destruction when not guided by higher ethical and spiritual values. When this issue came up for discussion among searching intellectual Jews, the Holocaust was often cited as a prime example, for Germany was a major center of modern western culture which initially attracted many assimilated Jews; yet, the science, technology, and art of this major center of western culture became dedicated to genocide.


The spiritual searching which began in the late 1960’s had a major influence on contemporary western culture, and many people became more open to discussing spiritual themes. Our age is therefore characterized by continued spiritual searching, a greater openness to spiritual discussion, and a renewed interest in religious teachings; in fact, these changes have provoked a backlash from some militant atheists who feel very threatened by this new spiritual development. This backlash may be the “last hurrah” of a dying outlook of militant secularism, for the God of history is guiding us to the age when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem” (Isaiah 11:9).


 During the early 1970’s, I attended a retreat of spiritually-searching Jews at Weiss’s Farm in New Jersey, and the participants sang a Hebrew song which one of the leaders learned from a religious Jewish community – a song which is sung to the following words of a biblical prophecy:


“Behold days are coming, spoke the Master of All, Hashem/Elokim, when I will send hunger into the land; not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but to hear the words of Hashem.” (Amos 8:11)


There is another prophecy which states that at the dawn of the messianic age, a call will go out from Zion to all human beings who are spiritually thirsty and spiritually hungry. In the description of this call, the Prophet Isaiah refers to water, wine, and milk as metaphors for the nurturing and free Divine Teaching:


“Ho, everyone who is thirsty, go to the water, even one with no money; go buy and eat; go and buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Isaiah 55:1)


The classical commentator, Ibn Ezra writes: “These are the words of Hashem to the nations of the world in those days to whoever will want to study Torah.” A similar explanation is given by another classical commentator, Radak, who explains that this call will go out in the age when peoples will say, “Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths” (Isaiah 2:3).


Radak then offers the following explanation as to why the prophecy uses “water” as a metaphor for the Divine Wisdom of Torah: Just as the world cannot exist without water, so too, it cannot exist without Torah; moreover, just as the thirsty person yearns for water, so too, the wise soul yearns for Torah. As an example, Radak cites the prophecy of Amos which we cited above:  


“Behold days are coming – the word of the Master of All, Hashem/Elohim – when I will send hunger into the land; not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but to hear the words of Hashem.” (Amos 8:11)


Radak then offers the following explanation as to why the above prophecy of Isaiah also refers to Torah as “wine”: Just as wine rejoices the heart, as it is written, “And wine that gladdens a person’s heart” (Psalm 104:15), so too, Torah rejoices the heart, as it is written, “The mandates of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart” (Psalm 19:9).


In addition, Radak offers the following explanation as to why this prophecy uses “milk” as another metaphor for Torah: Just as milk sustains the suckling and causes it to grow, so too, the study of Torah sustains the soul and elevates it from one level to the next.


When I first encountered the spiritual searching which began during the late 1960’s, I felt that this searching will eventually lead to the birth of the messianic age when “Torah will go forth from Zion, and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). When I later moved to Jerusalem, I began to learn more about those Torah teachings and mandates which apply to all humankind, and I hope to elaborate on this theme in a future letter when I discuss the insights that I gained in Jerusalem regarding the soul of Zion. In this letter, I will mention the following basic and universal Torah mandate which will go forth from Zion –a mandate which relates to our yearning to return to the ideal state of the Garden of Eden:


HashemElohim took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to guard it.”


The above verse mentions HashemElohim. I would like to suggest that Hashem, the Divine Name which expresses the life-giving Divine compassion, relates to the human responsibility to emulate the life-giving Divine compassion through “serving” the Garden – to lovingly nurture all life in the Garden. I would also like to suggest that Elokim, the Divine Name which expresses the life-protecting Divine justice, relates to the human responsibility to emulate the life-protecting Divine justice through “guarding” the Garden – to wisely preserve all life in the Garden.


The path of the Torah is to lead us back to the ideal state of the Garden of Eden, and this insight is found in the following ancient mystical teaching: The mandate to “serve” the Garden is a prototype of mitzvos aseh – the mitzvos of the Torah which call upon us to engage in actions which nurture and elevate the world, including ourselves; moreover, the mandate to “guard” the Garden is a prototype of mitzvos lo sa’asay – the mitzvos of the Torah which prohibit actions which damage and degrade the world, including ourselves. (Tikunei Zohar 55)


See you in the Garden!

Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)


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