The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto), the 18th-century Kabbalistic master, begins his classic, Derech HaShem, The Way of God, with this statement: “Kol ish m’Yisrael tzarich sh’ya’amin v’yeda.” “Every Jew needs to believe and to know....”
He completes this with a strikingly vague formula referring to God. Literally, he continues, “That which is found; first, beginning and eternal; and this (Being) is Who brought all things to being found, continues to bring things into being found within the finding.” The next paragraph goes on to say that this Being (this “that which is found”) is totally unknowable to any being outside Himself.
This sefer is, along with the Talmud, my foundational Jewish text. I’ve had the privilege to learn it with holy teachers, and have subsequently studied it myself and gone on to teach it innumerable times. A “magical” phenomenon which, I suspect, is commonly experienced by most people who study Torah, is that each and every reading offers new and deeper insights.
For years, when I’ve taught this text I have emphasized that the words the Ramchal chose, “sh’ya’amin” and “v’yeda,” are very poorly translated with the words believe and know. Hebrew is a much richer language than English, with each word containing untold layers of meaning, and we often broaden our understanding by examining related words (Hebrew is largely based on three-consonant roots which can generate words of widely different meaning). So when we look at the root of “sh’ya’amin,” AMN, we see the familiar amen, an affirmation of belief, as well as the word “emunah” which does mean belief. However, the root is also found in the words “uman,” a craftsman, and “amanut,” craft.
Rather than promoting blind faith, our tradition is informing us that belief is something that must be crafted over time, adding a little here, taking off a little there, much like a potter. In other words, it aspires to be a work in progress, meaning that one continues to deepen and grow, to fill in more and more blank spaces, but realizing that the perfect expression will, ultimately, elude us. Again, blind faith has no place in Judaism.
“V’yeda,” based on DEA, means to know, but much more than to merely have a factual knowledge it is a participatory, experiential and intimate relationship. Therefore, what I used to teach is that every Jew is obligated by our tradition to continually work on the process of having an intimate knowledge and relationship with the Creator. It seemed proper to establish a religion that, itself, contains so many responsibilities with this primary responsibility. Still, I was always a little uncomfortable with such a peremptory and, perhaps, arbitrary pronouncement.
But each new reading does bring new meanings and layers of understanding. Just last week it struck me that I was stuck too literally with the superficial meaning of “tzarich,” needs. A “tzorech” is more than just a need; it’s an internally generated need. It is something absolutely required, just as food and air, for our continuing existence.
Turning the paragraph on its head, just a bit, I reformulated these opening words to tell us “it is a universal inner-generated need within every Jewish soul to unceasingly grapple with the idea of a God totally outside even the potential of our understanding.” Just as our physical body requires food and water, our emotional life, love and our intellect require challenge, our spirit requires this eternal process of forming and refining relationship with The One.
(Before I’m accused of chauvinism or triumphalism — although I see nothing wrong in celebrating our continuing survival through the millennia against all odds — I want to emphasize that when I talk about Jewish souls, I’m not excluding everyone else from having deep spiritual drives and inclinations; I’m merely discussing my own field of knowledge, Jewish spirituality. It’s inconceivable to me that God doesn’t provide unique wisdom paths to all peoples.)
We’re closely approaching and preparing for the High Holidays. Some of us are already going to synagogue early every morning for selichot. Others are planning for meals and guests. Some are writing sermons.
Here’s an additional assignment. Rosh Hashanah liturgy emphasizes “malchut,” usually translated as the kingship of God. I propose that the literal experience of monarchy is so far removed from our experience and understanding as to be almost useless. We’re taught, however, that the Torah is eternal and has relevance to every generation and that it self-updates and reveals itself as necessary to each generation. Our mystical tradition points out that “malchut” also means fully engaging in the physical world we normally perceive. One way to do that is to daily, as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and beyond, actively engage our awareness of the Eternal which transcends our individual egos and try to form an ever-growing relationship with Him. May we all have a New Year filled with brachot and simchot, blessings and joy.