The Cloud, the Mist, the Thicket

The Cloud, the Mist, the Thicket

Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner is the chairman of OTS’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) who also just began his 35th year teaching at Midreshet Lindenbaum.

Shmuel-Klitsner

According to tradition, Hoshana Raba as the crescendo of the Sukkot experience is also a Yom Kippur retrospective, complete with yet another “last chance” to search for God and for introspection. It seems that gates that have been locked (ne’ilah) are never really tightly sealed.

Undoubtedly, the crescendo of the Yom Kippur experience is the final prayer of the day: the ne’ilah (locking of the gates).

While the Talmud (Yerushalmi Tractate Berakhot 4:1) records a disagreement as to whether the meaning is the locking of the Temple gates or the locking of the heavenly gates, the evocative term ne’ilah, conjures up the image of missed opportunities and impassable boundaries. But does Judaism really limit access to God to particular days and specific locations?

Last month I overheard my son in-law ask my two-year-old granddaughter, “Where is God?” My jaw dropped when she answered: “Wherever people let him in.” My son- in- law was quite pleased to have initiated his daughter into the world of Hassidic philosophy.

Epigrams and child prodigies notwithstanding, an oft quoted verse in Isaiah (55:6) suggests that not all moments and circumstances are alike: “Seek God where he is to be found; call to him when he is close.”

Various commentaries to the verse (see Talmud Tractate Rosh Hashana 18a) identify God’s closeness alternatively as the days of the month of Ellul, as the ten days of repentance, or as the situation of communal – as opposed to private – prayer. However, I am partial to the more audacious suggestion of the Zohar (Bereishit Vayera 105b): “Sometimes God is found and sometimes – not.”

This formulation reminds me of a Hassidic parable. An old man comes upon a small child in tears and asks: “Why are you crying, little one?” “Because I am hiding and no one is looking for me,” answered the child. The old man began to cry as well. “So too with God: God is hiding and no one is searching!”

To elaborate, there are two reasons people do not search: either because they’ve forgotten God, or because they think they’ve found God. The latter is invariably an illusion, as the infinite and the ineffable are, by definition, never to be captured. To apprehend is to reduce; to presume to have found God is both dangerous in its false clarity and destructive of the one activity – the endless search –that may actually bring godliness into life. Paradoxically, moments of doubt and unanswered questions foster spiritual search; the hubris of certainty obviates the search and freezes true yearning for the Divine.

How then might one approach the final hour of Yom Kippur and maximize the power of the ne’ilah experience? How can we deliver the moment when God is so close and simultaneously so far away and prevent it from slipping stillborn behind locked gates? 

Three biblical passages and their associative imagery come to mind:

Leviticus 16:12-13, in concerning the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, describes the casting of frankincense upon the altar of the temple, whereupon a “cloud of incense covers” the inner holy space.

In Exodus 20:17, regarding the revelation at Sinai, describes a cloud descending upon the mountain and Moses “approaching the mist in which God is to be found”.

If God is to be found in the mist, we are to approach not with clarity, but rather in utter humility and vulnerable uncertainty.

Similarly, the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (in his Ye’mei Zikaron) describes the final moment of ne’ilah as one of desperation, of a final recognition that all the poetic words and lofty rhetoric of our Yom Kippur liturgy still leave us with the inescapable feeling that we have yet to say anything about God and about our yearning for the Divine. It is at that point that the final shofar blast that ends the day of Yom Kippur is sounded. For Rav Soloveitchik, the shofar blast is the mute cry of an inarticulate ram, a helpless creature without recourse to the majesty of language. It is when we cry out in our most primal existential angst – as does an animal caught in the thicket – that we begin to approach the “God that is to be found in the mist.”

Indeed, Genesis 22:13, the verse that provides relief from the terrible test of the Binding of Isaac, and that provides our first encounter with the shofar (ram’s horn), adds the final image to the “cloud cover” and the “mist” of Leviticus and Exodus.

“And Abraham lifted his eyes and saw: behold a ram – its horns caught in the thicket.”

The thicket, the cloud, and the mist – these are the places where we are invited in to be close to God. Not in the landscape of a broad and bright horizon, nor in the loftiness of liturgical poetry. In those places we will find only ourselves and the echo of our own supplications. But if we dare to enter with humility and submission into the space of the thicket, the mist, and the cloud, then maybe… maybe…? 

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