Wait. Doesn’t that seem backwards? How could we accept the mitzvot, and only then learn what they are? How does it make sense to to agree to do, before we’ve heard what it is God is calling us to do? Almost every Torah commentator under the sun tackles this question, because it’s a big one.
Lately I’m spending quality time with Menchem Nachum of Chernobyl, the Hasidic master also known as the Me’or Eynayim. And he says this is a teaching about how spiritually, no one ever stands still.
We’re always rising and falling. Life-force ebbs and flows. Our connection with God ebbs and flows. Sometimes we feel connected with something beyond ourselves, and enlivened by that connection. Sometimes we feel we’ve fallen away and meaning is nowhere to be found.
Our task — he says — is to remember that all of creation is filled with divinity, that (in the words of the Zohar) לית אתר פנוי מיניה / there is no place devoid of the Presence. It’s easy to feel that at spiritual high moments when we’re feeling connected and full of love. It’s harder to feel that when life is difficult and God seems distant.
When we feel that we’ve fallen far from God, when we feel conscious of our shortcomings that keep us feeling disconnected, when we’re feeling existentially lonely, that’s when we need to remember that there’s no such thing as “far from God.” God, he teaches, is never absent or far away — only sometimes very hidden. God withdraws in order to make space for us, or perhaps to encourage us to seek.
When we feel that we’re far away from God or from goodness, God is actually right there with us in our feelings of exile, our feelings of loneliness, our feelings of despair. Sometimes everything seems clear and we can feel God’s presence with us. Sometimes the clarity departs and God feels far away. But the distinction is one of epistemology, not ontology.
And the answer to feeling existentially far-from-God is to say yes — even when we can’t feel the presence of the thing we’re saying yes to. Say yes to life, even if you don’t know where life will take you. Say yes to spiritual practice, even if you don’t know how spiritual practice will change you. Say yes to the mitzvot, even when you don’t wholly know what they are. Say yes to God, even if you aren’t sure God exists, or is listening.
Agreeing to do before we’ve heard what it is we’re supposed to do is an inversion. It’s rising before falling. But the thing about falling is, it just spurs us to want to rise higher. One step back, two steps forward. At least, that’s the Me’or Eynayim’s take on it. Because spiritual life never stands still.
Standing still is stasis, and stasis is death. As long as we’re living, we’re growing and changing. My seven-year-old likes to say there’s no such thing as doing “nothing” — even if we’re holding perfectly still, we’re breathing, we’re existing, blood is pumping through our veins. If we’re alive, we’re changing. In the Me’or Eynayim’s terms, if we’re alive, we’re rising and falling.
We agree to do the mitzvot — that’s a moment of rising. Then we fall, because that’s how life works. We touch elevated consciousness for long enough to give God an existential “yes we said yes we will yes,” and then we fall away. But in our falling, we listen for God’s presence in the world, and that’s when we hear the Voice issuing forth from Sinai. שמע: we listen, and achieve a glimmer of understanding, and rise up again.
The first step is a leap of faith: כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה / “all that God has spoken, we will do.” We leap even though we don’t know what we’re leaping to. We leap, saying “sure, we’ll spend our lives with You” before we really know Who God is or where God might take us. We leap knowing that we will fall… and that from our place of having-fallen, we can rise to greater heights.
This is the d’varling Rabbi Rachel offered at WCJA at Kabbalat Shabbat on February 17. The teaching from the Me’or Eynayim cited here can be found in Hebrew in the app ובלכתך בדרך; if you’d like to read it in English, there’s a translation at sefaria.