For modern Jews, wrestling with issues of faith is not unusual. Our very name “Israel” means to ‘struggle with God’. Many of us seek clarity amidst a confusing world of uncertainty. Woody Allen once quipped, “If only God would give me a clear sign – like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank!”
The Torah offers a simple yet vital insight for those desiring a closer relationship with God. “…You shall seek out His presence and come there” (Deuteronomy 12:5). Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg spun this verse as an encouragement that if you will seek God’s presence, you will attain the nearness you desire.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk took this idea even further. Basing himself upon a similar verse (4:29) “And you shall seek God from there and you shall find Him,” the Kotzker asserted that the seeking itself is the finding.
This concept was used by Rabbi Noach Weinberg to explain a difficult verse in the book of Genesis. After emerging victorious from a dangerous war against four great kings, God reassured Abraham not to be afraid and that his reward will be very great (15:1). It’s hard to understand why Abraham would be apprehensive after his victory, and where the idea of being rewarded fits into the passage. Rabbi Weinberg suggested that Abraham’s fear was a persistent one that plagued him for years. He was worried that he’d be punished for all the years of his life that he didn’t fully believe in God. Although Abraham began to think about God when he was three, he didn’t come to full faith until he was 48 years old. God here tells him that nonetheless, for all those years Abraham searched and struggled, he’d be greatly rewarded!
The key factor in the spiritual quest is sincere desire. King David wrote in the book of Psalms “God is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him with sincerity” (145:18).
Realizing that our forefathers were paragons of this characteristic can help explain a very puzzling comment by the famous commentator Rashi to a verse in the book of Exodus. God declared, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob…” (6:3), and Rashi notes that God appeared “to the forefathers (avot)”. Since we already know that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the forefathers, we wonder why Rashi felt the need to inform us of this here. Rabbi Moshe Sofer noted that the Hebrew word for forefathers, avot, is related etymologically to the Hebrew word for ‘desire/crave’. Rashi, therefore, is providing us with an insight into why the Almighty appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – because they desired Him. They sought after Him.
The children of Rabbi Baruch of Mezhibuzh, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, were playing hide and seek with friends. One of his children came running home terribly upset and bitterly crying. When Rabbi Baruch asked what happened, the child sobbed and said that when it was his turn to hide, his friends lost interest in the game and didn’t bother trying to find him. Rabbi Baruch sighed and said that God too is hiding (the Hebrew word for world, ‘olam’, means hidden – because G-d is not manifest in His world) and that it’s sad that many people don’t bother trying to find Him!
The great Babylonian sage Rav Saadiah Gaon composed a special personal prayer that he would say each morning. “Oh God who is concealed from the eyes of all living things, who is sublime and wonderful beyond the sight of all His creatures, the many heavens cannot contain You. But all those who seek You can find You in their hearts, and all who meditate upon you can find you in their thoughts.” Ultimately, it’s up to us. The Kotzker Rebbe said it best. When asked, “Where is God?” he responded by observing that “God is wherever you let Him in”!