By Rabbi Stephen Pearce
Whenever there was a crisis, the Ba'al Shem Tov would go to a specific place in the woods, light a fire, say a prayer and catastrophe would be averted.
A generation later, the Maggid of Meseritz, the Ba'al Shem Tov's disciple, faced with similar concern, would go to the same location and say: "I do not know how to light the fire, but I can say the prayers." Again the threat lifted.
A generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, next in the line of Chassidic leaders, faced crisis by returning to that place in the woods and saying: "I do not know how to light the fire, nor do I know the prayer, but I know the place where this all happened, and this must suffice." And it was sufficient.
Finally, when catastrophe faced Rabbi Israel of Rishin of yet a later generation, he sat in his study and said: "I do not know how to light the fire and I cannot say the prayers and I do not even know the place in the woods, but I can tell the story." And once again the emergency was lifted.
This legend speaks to modern Jews who, like the Ba'al Shem Tov and his disciples, also search for a way to connect with God, whether in time of personal crisis or as part of the ongoing search for the ineffable: What is the right expression for prayer? Where should we pray? How do we light the fire of faith? How do we reach God? We all seek the answers to these questions, but is the Ba'al Shem Tov's formula the best way to reach God?
We may use a variety of tools in our search for a glimpse of God because any evidence, no matter how fleeting, is more satisfying and convincing than belief entirely based on the unseen. A formless God is not easy to appreciate or believe in. This is the problem that VaEthanan, this week's Torah portion, deals with. In spite of our longing to see God, we are cautioned:
Be most careful — since you saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you…not to…make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever, having the form of a man or a woman…of any beast on the earth…of any winged bird that flies in the sky…of anything that creeps on the ground…of any fish that is in the waters below the earth. And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun, the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, that you be not lured into bowing down to them or serving them (Deuteronomy 4:15-19).
Instead of representations from the natural or celestial worlds, the faithful are offered the Ten Commandments, which do not begin with a description of God's form, but rather with a reminder of God's actions: "I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods beside Me" (Deuteronomy 5:6).
This statement is the essence of our ancestors' moral system: Begin by fulfilling God's commandments and then you will know God. Thus, finding God in a special place, lighting an ancestral fire, saying ancient prayers or retelling the stories of the past is not enough. The fulfillment of God's mitzvot — the commandments that call us to perform righteous and charitable acts — is the first and most important step on the pathway toward finding God.
But this message is contrary to what most people are searching for.
In this regard, Judaism is unique; belief alone is not sufficient to draw close to God. For example, when God threatened to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah(see Genesis 18:66ff), it was because of the depraved acts of the people and not because of their beliefs. Abraham bargained with God on behalf of as few as 10 righteous people. It was the ethical nature of their actions, not belief of that saving remnant, that was of paramount importance.
On the quest to draw close to God, a place, a fire, a prayer, and a miracle are not sufficient. Instead, we must be guided by mitzvot. The pathway to the Divine called for in the prayer offered when the Torah is held high for all the congregation to see: "Torah tzivah lanu, Moshe, marasha kehelat Yaakov. This is the Torah commanded to us by Moses; it is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob."