How to Draw Near

A teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, as recorded by Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye in Toldos Yaakov Yosef and Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Parshat Vayigash.

And Judah drew near to him

I heard from my teacher (the Baal Shem Tov) an explanation of this verse: As our sages teach, you should always arrange your praise of the Omnipresent One and afterwards pray [that is, first praise God and then make your requests] (1). As the Ramban wrote, “The power of the Maker is in that which is made,” and the Midrash says the created world is like a snail, in that its outer garb is part of the inner creature (2). So in every type of hardship there is a holy spark from God, albeit heavily disguised in its worldly garb…but when you strive to understand that here too God is with you, then the disguise is removed and revealed and the hardship ceases to be.

Thus, “to arrange one’s praise of the Omnipresent One” means to recognize that God is in everything, for it is the praise of God that His glory fills all the earth. [This includes even the hardships of life], as in the verse “In all their troubles He was troubled” — which can also be read “all their troubles are no trouble,” for if God is truly in the hardship, then it is not a hardship at all! (3) So a wise and discerning person will understand that the suffering that befalls a person is actually the suffering of the Shekhinah, of God in the world (4). Then he is ready to pray…

This is how we should understand And Judah drew near — with thanks (hoda’ah) and praise for God — “and he said Bi Adonai,” God is in me, so there is no hardship (5)…


1) See Masechet Berachot 31a and Avodah Zarah 7b   2) Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Girondi, aka Nahmanides (Gerona 1194 – Land of Israel 1270), was a philosopher, kabbalist, and Torah commentator. Here he is quoting a well-known mystical term, koach hapoel benifal. The strange image of the snail comes from Bereishit Rabbah 21:5, which raises the question of how the angel of Ezekiel 10:2 could be “clothed in linen,” since it is an entirely spritual being. The midrash answers that the angel is like a snail, in that its outer garb is part of its inner self. The Baal Shem Tov applies the same concept to the Omnipresent God, so that the universe is at once God’s clothes and God’s self.   3) Isaiah 63:9  In Sotah 31a, the rabbis point out that b’chol tzaratam lo tzar is written with a vav in the lo (meaning “He was troubled”), but it is read with an alef (meaning “it is no trouble”).  4) The Shekhinah, literally “in-dwelling,” or “presence” of God, is the immanent (and usually feminine) aspect of God. Tradition holds that when the Temple was destroyed and Israel exiled, the Shekhinah, which had until then dwelt with Israel in the Temple, chose to go into exile with the people rather than return to Her home with the transcendent aspect of G!d. This is one of the fundamental “breaks” in the world and, according to Jewish mystical tradition, it is the mission of every Jew to reunite the “wife” and “husband” through holy deeds.   5) The Baal Shem tov is reading YeHuDaH as a form of HoDa’aH, “thanks” (which it is — see Genesis 29:35)” and Adoni, “my lord,” as Adonai, “my LORD,” a reading that is supported by the unvocalized text, if not the context. The word, bi, literally “in me,” seems superfluous in the text, pointing to this deeper meaning.

Jeff says…
The idea that nothing exists that is not God, while far predating Hasidism, is one of Hasidism’s most salient claims. At first blush, this appears to many of us as a beautiful teaching and a much truer understanding of God than that of a celestial King. However, if we follow it to its logical conclusion, it is very troublesome. Does that mean that evil is God also? Is it God in the murderer, the rapist, the Nazi? Many of us would like to put the brakes on at this point, but the Baal Shem Tov won’t let us. While, for obvious reasons, he never got to explain God’s role in the Holocaust, he makes no bones about God being in the sinner, even in the sin. If there is nothing but God, how could it be any different? If we could see from Heaven’s point of view, we would understand how even the suffering that comes at the hands of evil is a mercy in disguise. This is troublesome for those of us living still on earth, which is why, I believe, the Baal Shem Tov and other masters spend so much ink on insisting that all is from God and therefore all is good. Lacking the heavenly point of view, we must, they urge, have faith, emunah.
I’ve always been attracted to this teaching, however difficult to accept. After all, aren’t the spiritual masters supposed to do more than reaffirm what we already believe — aren’t they supposed to challenge us, and share with us the understandings that they are privy to, that make them the masters? Yet, I still can’t bring myself to accept it. The most I can do is admit that it is possible and I, like the child who screams when he gets a shot, just don’t know what’s best for me.
I recently came across an insight by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book To Heal a Fractured World that has helped me put this irreconcilability to use. He writes, “If we were able to see from the point of view of God, creator of all…we would understand justice but at the cost of ceasing to be human. We would accept all, vindicate all, and become deaf to the cries of those in pain. God does not want us to cease to be human, for if he did, he would not have created us. We are not God. We will never see things from his perspective. The attempt to do so is an abdication of the human situation” (p. 22).

Rabbi Sacks is not asking us to deny the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, but to ignore it. As Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov taught, the very reason why God created lack of faith in His own existence is so that, when someone comes to us in need, we don’t turn them away, saying “Have faith!” Instead, we should act as if God does not exist, and we are the only ones who can help.

The Baal Shem seems to recognize how difficult his own teaching is for the rest of us, and so he offers us another way to grasp the same idea. Rather than thinking of God in the sinner who causes the suffering, think of God in those who bear the suffering (though this may still include the sinner), for the Shekhinah is with us in all our suffering. Every lack we see in the world we should see as the physical manifestation of Her lack, and so every effort we make to fill a need is also for Her. This includes our prayers. How can we be so chutzpadik as to ask God for our own health and livelihood every day in the Amidah when we know tomorrow others will still be without them? Because we are not asking only for ourselves, but for God’s self, and that means also for those who we know remain without. There is no longer any distinction between us, and them, and God, at least when it comes to helping. “The heavens are My throne and the earth is My footstool…yet to such a one I look — to the poor and brokenhearted” (Isaiah 66:1-2).
So to return to the Baal Shem Tov’s emphasis on the need for emunah — for those of us who feel uneasy insisting on the goodness of suffering (especially other people’s) — there is the other understanding of emunah, not as “faith” but “faithfulness.” The urgency for us, then, is not to have “faith in” any particular understanding of God’s ways, but to be “faithful to” the ways we have been commanded to live, to remain faithful to the Covenant and to do our part to relieve the suffering. And the Alexandrer Rebbe gives us yet another twist on emunah. Psalm 92:3 reads, lehagid baboker chasdecha ve’emunatcha balailot, “To tell Your kindness in the morning, and Your faith in the night.” He points out that it doesn’t say “my faith,” but “Your faith”: it’s not my faith in You that gets me through the night, it’s Your faith in me, that I will help bring the coming day.

This entry was posted in Baal Shem Tov/ Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Hasidic Masters, Parsha, Vayigash. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How to Draw Near

  1. Pingback: Bottoms up! | Hasidism for the Rest of Us

  2. Pingback: U’tefillah, u’teshuvah, u’tzedakah… | Hasidism for the Rest of Us

  3. Pingback: What G!d Lacks | Hasidism for the Rest of Us

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