Call of the Heart

by Eliezer Shore


There is a call that echoes in creation. It does not stop. It is never silent. It calls in a million voices, though it has only one source. It is heard in a million ways, though its message is always the same. It is a call to the Source. No matter where a person may be in life, the call reaches there. It is the single most insistent force in creation. It is the reason for creation; for the purpose of life is to know G-d, and the entire universe is merely a vessel through which G-d calls us back to Him.

Now Moses kept the flock of Yisro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock around the back of the desert, and came to the mountain of G-d, to Horev (Exodus ...).

At first, the call is imperceptible. It beckons so quietly that it is almost always heard as something else. Kabbalah speaks of creation as multi-dimensional, with one level hidden in the next. At the heart of them all is G-d. Likewise, the innermost longing of every individual is for G-d. But when this core desire is obscured, it takes on other forms. Chassidic writings speak of "fallen loves" -- worldly desires as misguided longings for the Divine. What attracts us in the things of this world is never the object itself, but the spark of holiness within it, and the relationship with G-d that uncovering that spark implies. At every moment, we are searching for our Maker, even when we are unaware of it. "From the rising of the sun to its setting, My Name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is burnt and sacrifices are offered to My Name" (Malachi 1). In every place, taught Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, even those places where G-d is hidden.

It is from those very places that the call is first heard, for G-d addresses each individual in his own terms. One person may hear the call in the words of poetry or philosophy. Another may be aroused by the call of political ideals and social justice. Yet another in spiritual practices such as yoga or meditation. The call may sound in the Jewish soul with uniquely Jewish causes: the State of Israel, the fight against anti-Semitism. What is similar in all cases, is that the person is uplifted and brought to a higher level of social or spiritual involvement. However, at this stage, the call is still indirect. It addresses us from behind, as it were, leading us "around the back of the desert to the mountain of G-d." Yet, even as we tend the flocks of Yisro, we may still be traveling towards Horev. And if we keep listening, the call begins to reveal its actual source, the One truth that lies at the heart of our most noble endeavors.

And the angel of the L-rd appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

For the true searcher, the world is ablaze with G-d's Presence. The Midrash relates that Abraham -- the first spiritual seeker -- beheld a lit-up palace. "There must be an owner of this palace," he concluded. Finally, the owner revealed himself to him. Creation spoke to Abraham. By contemplating its wonders, he came to recognize its "Owner." Rabbi Nachman said that the world is far from G-d only because people do not take time to think about their lives. Thus, the spiritual search begins when we turn aside from our mundane preoccupations and see the wonders in life and in creation. It takes only a slight gesture for the call to reveal its true source. "Open for me a door the size of a pin-hole, and I will open for you the supernal gates," the Zohar quotes G-d as saying. A pin-size hole is enough to let G-d in, commented Reb Tzadok HaKohen, but it must pierce the heart entirely.

And when the L-rd saw that he turned aside to see, G-d called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, here I am.

Through this tiny opening, G-d's Infinite Presence floods in. The sudden realization that G-d exists, that life has a purpose beyond the meager values of the self, that there is a Presence in Creation infinitely greater and more profound than anything one had previously imagined, breaks into the consciousness like the ocean. It is a mighty call. "The voice of the L-rd is in power. The voice of the L-rd is in majesty. The voice of the L-rd breaks the cedars . . ." (Psalms 29). G-d's call now strikes the person with full force, for only such a powerful revelation can completely detach the seeker from the fallacious world-view in which he had previously been trapped.

Moreover, He said, I am the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jaacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon G-d.

At first, the call is indefinite -- a general proclamation that the Creator exists; slowly, the words become more distinct. There comes a point in each individual's development when the relationship with G-d can no longer be based on personal feelings alone, but on commitment to the tradition. When "our G-d" becomes "G-d of our fathers." Accepting a spiritual discipline is perhaps the most difficult step a seeker can take, for it means embracing a body of laws and customs that will forever separate one from the rest of the world. One may even try to deny this call, to hide one's face, but there is no avoiding the truth. G-d's Presence is strongly felt in the heart, and only the forms of the tradition can fully give it voice.

When the initial fear subsides, a passionate drive for holiness grips the seeker, and with it, a willingness to change. Beginning practitioners can be recognized by the determination in their eyes, the intensity of their worship, and their concern over even the smallest details of religious observance.

Beginning in the 1960's, an unprecedented phenomena occurred in the Jewish world. Large numbers of young men and women from secular backgrounds began returning to the faith of their ancestors, to the laws and practices that their parents and grandparents had abandoned decades before. Religious outreach programs appeared on college campuses. Special yeshivas were founded to cater to these late beginners. The return to the Land of Israel flourished. These newcomers all shared a burning desire for G-d that had previously been seen only in the lives of the great tzaddikim. The call of G-d rang so loudly in their ears that the world fell away. They abandoned their jobs, their goals, their secular world-view. They adopted new names, new modes of dress, of speech and of action. The same is true of every spiritual seeker. The beginning period is one of radical transformation, the previous lifestyle is discarded and a new religious persona takes its place. One's past seems only to be an impediment, while the future holds the promise of unlimited growth.

This initial period of grace may continue for several years, but it does not last forever. Slowly, the enthusiasm wanes, routine performance of mitzvos replaces the original intensity, the thunder of Sinai becomes silent. For a time, the seeker may try to recreate the initial enthusiasm through his own efforts; in his heart, he knows that he is fooling himself. Now comes a long period of darkness -- the forty years in the wilderness. Now it is the seekers turn to call. G-d seems so far away. The seeker calls and calls; he can call his guts out, but not receive an answer. "I am weary with crying: my throat is dry: my eyes fail while I wait for G-d" (Psalms 69). This drama may unfold over the course of years, and it may repeat itself in miniature many times a day. There are brief moments of illumination, a sense of Divine closeness, a renewed hope for the future, only to vanish the very next minute, leaving behind boredom and despair.

But G-d is not truly far away. He is only silent for a moment, and is drawing the seeker close to Him even in concealment. One of the great obstacles on the spiritual path is pride, an intrinsic element of human consciousness since mankind succumbed to the Serpent's promise "you shall be like G-ds" (Genesis 3). When the soul is aroused by the call of G-d, invariably and at the same time, the shell of ego that surrounds it is also strengthened. Beginning seekers are recognizable not only by their fervor, but by an indefatigable conceit over their own spiritual accomplishments, and an often critical attitude towards others. By concealing His Presence, G-d allows the seeker to experience his own helplessness and insignificance. In the heart-breaking silence that follows, the seeker is humbled, the pride removed. Nevertheless, "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart," as the Kotzker Rebbe said. After all the crying, the calling, the beseeching G-d to return, what remains is the humble acceptance of one's limitations, a recognition of the truth, a "heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36).

It is at the point when the seeker has been completely broken and can no longer deny his imperfections, that G-d's call is heard once more, but now in a different tone. "And behold, the L-rd passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke the rocks in pieces before the L-rd; but the L-rd was not in the wind: and after the wind, an earthquake, but the L-rd was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake, a fire: but the L-rd was not in the fire: and after the fire, a still small voice" (I Kings, 19). It is not in the voice of religious intolerance or artificial enthusiasm that G-d ultimately speaks to us, but in the voice of humanity, love and compassion, that calls from every corner and aspect of life. This voice is never silent. It speaks to us in life's smallest encounters, and beckons us to relate to Him with all our most human emotions and foibles. Thus, the Torah, as a spiritual path, is especially concerned with the sanctification of the mundane, and the relationship with G-d that is born out of the most basic human needs and emotions.

And He said, Do not draw near: put off your shoes from your feet, for the place upon where you stand is holy ground.

In the beginning, G-d calls the seeker away from himself; ultimately, He calls him back to himself. When the fire dies down, the person returns to who he is, and in returning, finds G-d waiting. "Remove your shoes, the ground you are standing upon is holy." When we remove the ego that stands between ourselves and the ground of our being, we can hear G-d's voice calling to us from even the simplest aspects of life. "The voice of my Beloved . . . Behold, He stands behind our wall, He looks in at the window; He peers through the lattice . . . let me see Your Countenance, let me hear Your Voice" (Song of Songs 2). In returning to himself, the seeker rediscovers his own unique strengths, and the special gifts that G-d bestows upon each individual. Gifts that had previously been discarded as insignificant now become the very vessels through which G-d communicates to us. This is the meaning of the burning bush. The bush burned with fire, but it remained a bush. A person can burn with the presence of G-d, but remain human, remain who they are. Ultimately, G-d's call is a personal call, addressing each one of us, who we are, where we are, calling upon our strengths and humanity. "He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds. He counts the number of stars and calls them all by their names" (Psalms 147).

(C) Eliezer Shore, Bas Ayin