Reflections on Rambam Yomi – Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah ch. 2
How does love feel?
It feels like a Gazelle does, crying for water in the desert.
A creature who is parched loves water, but that love is a painful feeling.
Love of God is the same feeling.
When a person investigates God’s wondrous creation and recognizes the infinite wisdom contained therein, they immediately love Him and praise Him. But they also develop a great thirst-like desire to know Him.
We often think of love of God as the enthrallment and enchantment of embracing Him; of enjoying His kisses. And that is the ultimate consummation of the love. But when do we experience this embrace? Moshe died with a kiss. We desire to know God, but “A person cannot see me and live”. Since the body is a veil between us and God, only with death can we enjoy that full intimacy which we so desire. Even the lesser enjoyment of being in the same room as beloved can only be had by those in the throne-room. Who, maybe only momentarily, see Him from a distance; a level which the Rambam (Moreh Hanevuchim 3:51) describes as being that of a prophet (thus in our service of God we aspire to prophecy, even if we are unlikely to reach it). Even when we praise Him our enjoyment of that contemplation is tempered by realizing that, in reality, our praise is nothing, and that in truth “For you, silence is praise” (Tehilim 65:2)
The source the metaphor of thirst is Mizmor 42. In this Mizmor, David describes the pain of exile. In addition to the physical suffering, there is a deep pain of feeling the distance of God our beloved. Our thirst for God is unsatisfied, our captors mock us for God’s distance and we miss the feeling of closeness which we had in going to the Mikdash on Aliyah Laregel.
(In this sense we are still in exile. In the time of the Mikdash our desire for closeness to God could be somewhat satisfied by going to Mikdash to rejoice with the Jewish People. (Although, unless it triggered prophecy, that experience was only a pale reflection of what the metaphysical lover truly seeks.) Now we have lost even that. This is something to mourn for on Tishah BeAv. In spite of our sovereignty in Israel and our material success, we have lost those moments in which, as a nation, we could experience being with God.)
Much like in Shir Hashirim, the historical perspective of the Jewish People’s love of God serves as a metaphor for the soul’s love of God. This thirst of the soul which loves God is analogous to the thirst of a person in exile. In other words, to love God is to suffer from his distance (and perhaps to recognize life in the body as exile.)
If love is so painful; if, as said in Shir Hashirim (8:6), it is as strong as death, and as hard as the grave, why not abandon it?
The next Pasuk (8:7) answers this question. Even if we wanted to give it up, we wouldn’t be able to. It is such a blazing flame inside of us that water cannot extinguish it. We might repress it, but deep down we will always feel the longing. (Kayin, in choosing to live in hiding from God, gave up on any possibility of feeling settled)
Furthermore, to give up on love would be a betrayal of ourselves. As lovers we would disdain any attempt to buy off our love. Even an offer of living in luxury wouldn’t be worth it.
In western society we view pain and suffering as the greatest evil. But there are times when suffering is worthwhile. A person might choose to reject pain killers in order to maintain coherence of their personhood and clarity of mind, rejecting the painless drugged state which is offered to them.
As lovers of God, we must welcome the suffering of feeling distant – choosing, above all else, to seek Him (by constantly studying His creation and meditating on that knowledge), while aware that the knowledge which we seek is infinitely distant – hoping that one day (even if it be the day of our death) we will be with our beloved.