The Breath

The deepest yearning of man is the longing to connect with God. It is not enough for a person to know with the mind and the intellect that God exists. We yearn for connection, we yearn to experience God.

In the material world we distinguish between knowledge that is purely intellectual on the one hand and between sensory knowledge on the other. Abstract concepts that were not illustrated to us in the physical world, such as the solution to a mathematical equation, remain in the realm of the intellect. We do not connect with such knowledge on any level of depth. We have not experienced that knowledge. In sharp contrast to intellectual knowledge, we have sensory knowledge, concepts that we encountered through our senses. A scene that we saw, sounds that we heard, experiences that impacted us on the level of the sensory. These concepts touch our inner beings, we sense that we truly connect with that which we have experienced through the senses.

Since God is not a physical being, we will not be able to acquire knowledge of God through our physical senses. This fact presents a certain problem. We yearn to connect to God, but we cannot do so in the way that we connect to our material surroundings.

Many world religions, including Christianity, capitalize on this seeming obstacle that stands in our way of connecting with God. By associating an image from the material world with the concept of God, it becomes so much easier to connect to God on the experiential level. But the Bible defines this method as idolatry. God warned us that we associate no image with Him when we direct our devotion towards Him (Deuteronomy 4:15). This is not the path that will lead us to connect with God.

The key to connecting to God is found in Genesis 2:7. The Scripture teaches that God brought man to life by breathing into his nostrils. Throughout scripture we find that the inner being of man, generally translated as soul, is called by the Hebrew name “Neshama”, which literally means: “breath” (see Proverbs 20:27, Job 32:8). Our inner being is a breath from God, our inner being is what yearns for God, and our inner being has the ability to experience God. The connection that is achieved when the inner being of man experiences God surpasses every sensory experience that exists. Our senses are external to us, our inner being IS us. When our neshama/breath/inner being connects with its Creator, WE have experienced.

The barrier that stands in our way is not the fact that God is not physical, because our inner being is not physical either. The barrier that stands in our way is the fact that we do not connect to our own inner beings. We perceive ourselves and we define ourselves according to the experiences of the body, of the emotions, of the senses and of the intellect, but we fail to tune into the yearning of our inner being, the experiences of our inner being and the reality of our inner being.

One of the clear distinctions between our external shell; our bodies and emotions on the one hand, and our inner beings on the other hand is the type of experience that they seek. Our external shell seeks experiences of taking, it wants to posses it wants to absorb and take in. Our inner being is not a “taker”, it is a “giver”. Our inner being, which is but a breath from God, by its intrinsic nature reflects God’s goodness, kindness and giving. Our yearning for God is not a desire to “take in” another spiritual experience. It is not a self centered desire. It is a desire to be absorbed into God’s love, into God’s goodness, into God’s holiness and into God’s purity. It is a desire to give ourselves over to God. It is a desire to give rather than a desire to take. Ultimately we will become the channel for God’s light that will flow through our inner beings to light up the world (Isaiah 60:2,3).

We can summarize these concepts by stating that the chief barrier that stands between us and our connection to God is the fact that we do not identify ourselves with our own inner beings, and instead, we  identify with our external shells that seeks to take and to posses.

With this knowledge in front of us we can understand one of the central themes of Scripture. Time and time again we are told and reminded that God desires justice and kindness (Genesis 18:19, Isaiah 55:1, Jeremiah 9:23, Ezekiel 18:27, Micah 6:8, Psalm 106:3, Proverbs 21:3). Justice and kindness are described by the prophets as “knowing God” (Jeremiah 22:16). People who seek closeness to God before walking on the path of justice and charity will not find God (Isaiah 58:2).

Justice and kindness are the steps we follow to move from our identification with our external shell and towards connecting with our own inner beings. Justice is the recognition that the desire to take that which is not rightfully ours is an abhorrent desire. It is not a desire that we should identify with. Love of kindness is the development of the desire of our inner beings to give. When we love kindness and charity, we identify with the breath of God inside of us that seeks to be a part of God’s giving.

Only after we have moved from the “taking mode” to the “giving mode” can we hope to walk humbly with our God.

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Thank You

Yisroel C. Blumenthal

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3 Responses to Breath

  1. Annelise says:

    An experience yesterday reminded me of this post. It was encouraging to read it again this morning. I want to share the story in hope that it engages with your thought here, from a different and hopefully meaningful perspective.

    I’ve recently started going to services at a synagogue for the first time, which has been a blessing. Most of my relationship with God since I was young, as a teenager, and as an early young adult have been as a Christian; I don’t have any Jewish background in my family. This faith isn’t something I became disillusioned with or unable to accept, despite questions from friends and others I came to know or speak with in a ministry setting, who were from other faiths or without faith. We know God enough to trust Him in faith when our knowledge is small. Late last year I became challenged by the Jewish perspective through asking questions and sharing conversation. Their objections weren’t intellectual ones against my faith, but rather matter of relationship, integrity, and of God’s desires within it. Like every person’s journey it’s a long story with hundreds of questions, conversations, influences, and experiences. Wondering how to even ask these things in faithfulness to God; unsure about my understanding and motivations; learning to trust that He is faithful to catch our attention with the truth each day, and that everything we have in relationship with Him comes from Him first.

    I don’t accept the worship of Jesus as an incarnation of our creator, or the belief that restoration to God comes through faith in Jesus as Messiah. I can’t believe it by default or for a clear and compelling reason. There are good Christian answers to many Jewish objections, but for a number of reasons I don’t believe a person who already knew God loyally in Judaism could have accepted these beliefs. Did they even need to consider them carefully for relationship with God, forgiveness, or obedience to His covenant commandments? So finding myself here left me in a strange place. I knew that the traditional Jewish way of speaking about Hashem resonates with the way I’ve known Him already, but until the last couple of months I also tried not to be influenced by the aesthetics and community aspect of Jewish culture and life. Another thing was that I believed in the Tanach because of the witness of the Christian community, and ultimately of Jesus, but why should I accept it now? I simply can’t waver in agnosticism when I know that God has revealed Himself for us to take hold of in loyalty and thankfulness. I had stopped going to church services months before I came to that point, because I couldn’t worship Jesus if I wasn’t sure who he was. But I decided to come to the synagogue when I realised that I must hold on to the Jewish testimony about God, and listen to the experiences of that community in their relationship with Him. The journey has been a shock, not something I expected, but I have so valued the opportunity to come to our creator in that sanctuary. There are Jews who have a close and mature walk with God, and Jews who have intricate life stories, other reasons for being there, and struggles with Hashem and the Torah. Actually, we all fit into both groups. I am thankful for the chance to share life with this people, and have a lot to learn.

    That’s the background for I wanted to share, from my experience of Shabbos yesterday. Last week was intense in terms of busyness, time spent with people and with God, and some meetings I went to. I woke early on Saturday morning and felt hesitant about going to shul… I felt like the siddur and parsha are so full of complete affirmations of faith in God’s goodness, His sovereignty over everything, and His promises. These are things I’ve been holding onto with everything I hope in: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire beside you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Yet to hope deeply in something and be completely invested in it makes me check myself: how can I be sure of God’s goodness? Our experience of His actions in our world is full of both blessing and pain, joy and unknowing. You can’t arrive at Tanach through philosophical thought alone. Is the revelation of books like Deuteronomy and Proverbs true, while Job and Ecclesiastes and other passages grapple with the fact that righteousness and physical blessing don’t always immediately match? In His wisdom, why do there ‘need’ to be such finite limitations in creation, in our journey of knowing Hashem? We have an intimate experience of God’s faithfulness, how He deserves and responds to the pouring out of our hearts in joy. The Jewish declaration of these things in the synagogue service is so clear. Yet their value depends on integrity in faith, and we need to be sure that our love for His ways isn’t supported merely by the fact that we couldn’t bear to let go of clinging to Him.

    This blog post by Rabbi Yisroel meant a lot. As a Christian I approached these questions in a different way, so they have become new and unfamiliar to me again. The focus of the historicity/truth question is usually on the resurrection of Jesus and the continued Christian experience, rather than on the historicity of Torah or the authority of rabbinic Judaism in all its complexity and discussion. The question of God’s goodness has always been outshone by the thankfulness of thinking that He came and experienced the suffering of our sin and the human condition. Seeing the world and our relationship with God through the Jewish eyes and heart means that an illusion is burst in both of those things, because I don’t accept them to be from God. It’s good to hold onto the experience of Jewish friends about His closeness through creation, His blessing, our reliance on Him every moment for continued existence, and learning to walk in His own ways. It’s biblical and real. In both sleeping and waking, it’s a gift to be held in the love of our God.

    All said, these last nine months or so have been a blessed, unexpected time of coming to know and trust God in a new way, on the same path with Him but with a new knowledge of His relationship with creation; a deeper settledness in relationship with Him, despite the turmoil of questions; and the weight of the joy of walking beside this community of people and faith. Many Jews, from counter-missionaries to other leaders and quiet members of the community that you might never meet have a deep desire for their people to awake to the knowledge of God, and I honour that. It has also been hard. There’s an element of unfamiliarity, culture shock, and desiring to hold on to God more than any other commitment. It’s costly stay in close relationship with Christian friends, who still make up most of the people I know well and who love and seek God with deep integrity and relationship: their New Testament asserts at its heart that those who have faith in God will be those who have faith in Jesus. There are people who generously pour into my life, and those whom I try to listen to and be there for, but at the moment my close mutual relationships have all come to centre on our difference of faith, loyalty to God. I also don’t know if my road with God would lead me to convert to Judaism, so I don’t know yet if I’ll have a family with someone who shares my faith. The third thing on my heart is that there are both struggles and deep blessing amongst the Jewish community. Holding on to God in the uncompromisable knowledge of Him that is a light in our world and declared by Jews every day is all that we have.

    So at this time of life, I’m thankful to be encouraged again that as we choose to give, as we choose righteousness, we won’t become empty but ourselves will be filled to overflowing. This is how He created us, and it’s good. We know our creator and hope in His protection, in His own breath, when we hide our spirit in Him.

    • Annelise says:

      P.S. That was a long post, sorry about that! To clarify three things that weren’t phrased well:

      “There are Jews who have a close and mature walk with God, and Jews who have intricate life stories, other reasons for being there, and struggles with Hashem and the Torah. Actually, we all fit into both groups.” What I meant that all people who have a relationship with God have this mixed experience. I wasn’t implying that I’m Jewish 🙂

      “I don’t know yet if I’ll have a family with someone who shares my faith” assumes that it’s not an option for me to have that kind of relationship with someone who didn’t have a close relationship with God and the beliefs that I do.

      I also didn’t mean that I’m losing touch with all my close Christian friends and leaders. The opposite… even though the feeling of understanding and shared faith is under pressure, people have been really beautiful and valued in the way they listen and stay close.

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