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Walking With God, Utterly Alone: Haftarat Balak, Micah 5:6-6:8

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July 2, 2014

Our Haftarah this week climaxes in one of the Tanach’s most poignant moments:

With what shall I approach the Lord,
Do homage to God on high?

The prophet considers various forms of sacrifice, but rejects it, instead presenting us with an inspiring – and discreetly terrifying – vision.

He has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk humbly with your God.

What does it mean to “walk humbly with your God”?  The word translated as “humbly” or “modestly” is hatzneyah, and that is the sense of the word. In Orthodox communities, the laws of Tzniut refer to the ways in which women must cover themselves. But in the Tanach, Micah’s injunction represents the only time in which one is expected to do something hatzneyah: indeed, it is the only time that the word is used. There is another option, anav or ani, which gives a sense of humility, meekness, poverty, and affliction, and that word is used dozens of times. The Tanach is telling us something here.

Hatzneyah carries with it the connotation not so much of meekness but rather that of privacy or secrecy (Song of Songs Rabbah 3:4). To walk humbly with your God, then, means having a private or secret relationship with the Divine. That is not something normally thought of as Jewish: Jewish prayer is said in the first person plural, as a communal activity. Not here. Micah’s God here sees religious experience as in the same way as the philosopher William James did: “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider to be divine.”  Most scholars consider James’ definition to be quintessentially Protestant. Not so.

Micah’s emphasis on a private and secret relationship with God makes enormous psychological demands on us.  It resembles the Chassidic emphasis on devekut, or clinging to God, in an intimate and almost erotically charged way (tzniut, after all, is about marital bonds). It calls for us to have something akin to an emotional affair with the divine: Kalonymous Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, prayed, “I wish so much to be close to His blessed Essence. My deepest desire is to feel that I am forever growing nearer to the mighty Creator.” The Kabbalists observed that the Hebrew word for God’s presence, Shechinah, is feminine, and developed an elaborate mystical system for communing with this divine lover. One might dismiss this as repressed sexuality, but a more generous reading interprets their erotic language as the closest metaphor to express their fierce yearning for intimacy with God.

I am reminded of one of my favorite songs, Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,” which tells us:

In every heart there is a room
A sanctuary safe and strong
To heal the wounds from lovers past
Until another comes along

The singer promises to “share this room” with his lover so “you can have this heart to break.” Close, but not quite, comments our Haftarah.  In every heart, Micah insists, there is a room that no other human being can experience, and is reserved for God. That room holds the yearnings for meaning and fulfillment in life that only God can answer.

To seek that private and secret relationship with God means attempting to discover, in Joseph Soloveitchik’s words, “one’s place and role within the scheme of events and things willed and approved by God, when He ordered finitude to emerge out of infinity and the Universe, including man, to unfold itself.”

But what if God doesn’t show up?  What if we open ourselves to a divine affair only to be met with silence and loneliness? I suspect that this happens more frequently than any other scenario. “Personal growth” has become a massive, multibillion industry driven in no small part by repeat customers, not to mention the use of recreational drugs as a means of escaping from emptiness. Millions of people are yearning, and longing, and aching for something that, like Godot, just isn’t coming.

The Haftarah makes no promises concerning such suffering.  By connecting “walking humbly with your God” so closely to “doing justice” and “loving goodness”, it hints that these other two activities might help someone to develop a private relationship with God. Yet pursing justice and goodness are no guarantees of fulfillment, especially when, as often happens, the pursuers end their lives defeated and broken.

Our tradition seeks to develop closeness with the divine through spiritual practices: as I mentioned a few weeks ago, Yitzhak Buxbaum’s “> Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide provides a beautiful, wise, and clear explanation of hitbodedut as well as other meditative practices, tells us:

Tell God how much you would like to speak to Him. Explain to Him that it is hard for you to find something to say. Ask God to help you find words with which to address Him. Discuss the problem with Him as you would a good friend….initiate a conversation by asking God to bring you closer to Him.  Tell Him how far you feel from Him and how much closer you would like to be. Ask Him to help you find such closeness.

At the end of the day, though, there are no guarantees. We must avoid the arrogance that Jewish spirituality has “solved” the eternal problem of human loneliness and alienation. The Haftarah commands us to walk humbly with God; it does not assure us that we will find joy or meaning – unless, of course, we can learn that the very attempt is the meaning. Some still, small voice – perhaps internal – will tell us, “you did not find what you were looking for. But you have strived as hard as one can to find it. You have done the best work a human being can do.” Can this answer satisfy our yearnings? It might have to.

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