Rabbi Heschel at 100 — still the voice of God
I had a life-changing experience on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 25th yahrzeit in 1997. After just meeting and befriending Heschel’s daughter and only child, Susannah,
she took me with her to all of the various memorial services happening around New York City in her father’s memory.
I went into the Heschel home and met his relatives — great rebbes and leaders of various Orthodox sects, who, regardless of the fact that their famous family member left Orthodoxy, came to pay their respects and honor his memory.
There was an intense Ma’ariv service at the Heschel School, one in which Susannah taught a Mishnah, a selection of oral law, in honor of her father, using the chanting and pronunciation of another world, another time. The experience swept me back into Eastern Europe, to the Polish village where Heschel came from, to the beit midrash, the study hall, where he emerged as the talmudic and biblical genius he was to become.
I had never felt such depth of prayer, such fervor of learning text, such intensity of emotion; Abraham Joshua Heschel’s spirit was alive in that room.
This past week was Heschel’s yahrzeit, which falls during Parshat Shemot, the beginning of slavery and our fight against Pharaoh, which is also when we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. How appropriate!
Heschel spent the end of his life fighting against injustice, screaming out against the Pharaohs of his day, using his prophetic understanding to try and end the Vietnam War, speak out against poverty and, of course, famously walking with and befriending Dr. King in his fight against racism and for civil rights. From the life of Jacob, the God-wrestler, to the battle against injustice, from Vayechi to Shemot, these are the mountaintops from which Heschel lived his life, combining love of Torah and God with a need for prophetic screaming against the injustices of our world.
Heschel taught that God, Torah, Judaism and one’s whole being are fully interconnected. There is no break among any of these moments in our lives. When we pray, we must give our whole selves over to the experience of connecting with God, the Divine. As Heschel wrote in “Between God and Man”: “One who goes to pray is not intent upon enhancing his storehouse of knowledge; he who performs a ritual does not expect to advance his interests. Sacred deeds are designed to make living compatible with our sense of the ineffable.”
Mitzvot lead us to this kind of life, even as we exist in the secular and material world. We must cultivate an inner sense of connection with the Divine so as to carry it forth in all moments of our lives. This takes work, patience, consistency and inner courage. Every moment with every falling leaf, every passing car, with every unseen sound, with every unseen breath, these are the moments of eternity, holy of holies. If only we can come awake to these moments, then Heschel will live in all of us.
Pathos for God, feeling the pain, sharing the joy, having a relationship — that is what Heschel lived with. There is nothing higher, nothing holier, than community connected in rich and meaningful prayer. It is never a performance, a show for the congregation to watch. It is an experience to partake in and fully contribute to.
Without all of us in it together, the experience is not complete. As Heschel wrote in “Man’s Quest for God”: “The act of prayer is more than a process of the mind and a movement of the lips…. What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God. To pray means to expose oneself to God.”
In today’s Jewish experience, we need to recapture the sense of awe and wonder that Heschel professed so often. Prayer must regain its sense of meaning for it to have value for us today. Life must be lived with a sense of the ineffable, which Heschel meant as seeing the great amazement of just being alive.
How many of us wake up each morning and give thanks for the new day? How many of us see the pain of the world around us and call out for justice? How many of us notice the beauty, the glory, the absolute magnificence that exists right here, right in front of us?
Heschel noticed the gnat on a wall, the bud on a tree just before it blooms, the face of the God in the homeless people he passed on the street each day. And, in all of these moments, he understood that there was a God, a Creator and Sustainer, a Life-Supporter and a Guide. We must do the work in this world, that is true, but it is God that offers us the chance to do mitzvot, it is God that smiles when we succeed and it is God that cries when we fail.
We all have the ability to become the prophet, to live with the voice of God in us. On this, Heschel wrote: “The pathos of God is upon him. It moves him. It breaks out in him like a storm in the soul, overwhelming his inner life, his thoughts, feelings, wishes, and hopes. It takes possession of his heart and mind, giving him the courage to act against the world.”
This is the mindset of Heschel, and while we can’t live like this all of the time, ultimately, this is the mindset that can be achieved through prayer, leading to action in our world. If only we commit ourselves to cultivating this sense. We must carry God with us on our journey in life, not just visit God when we come to the synagogue.
In honor of Heschel’s 100th year, I would encourage you to read, or re-read, something by him. His books have the potential to change your life if you read them with an open heart, an open mind and desire to be truly moved, shaken, uprooted and replanted with different vision, new motivation and a drive to make this world a more holy, special, just place, and to live a life filled with the awe and wonder that we seldom only see in our children. Heschel maintained his sense of wonder throughout his life, and, at the end, he recalled that fact as the most important kernel he had to teach:
“Live your life as a work of art,” he said in his final interview. What more can be said then, “Amen.”