A friend of mine, a prominent scholar in medieval philosophy and mystical thought, once traveled from New York to visit Reb Menashe, a Jerusalem mystic. I accompanied him.
“What does emunah – faith – mean to you?” Reb Menashe asked the scholar.
The scholar reviewed various positions on the matter of faith, from Medieval to Chassidic. Reb Menashe listened patiently and then responded:
“It is so much simpler than that,” he said, “Emunah is the feeling that the baby has that its mother will not drop him.”
A child wrapped in the cradling arms of his or her mother conveys the most powerful yet gentle image of certainty. The mother, merely by being present, confers unconditional love to the child. The nursing mother, in Hebrew called the omen, gives the child a sense of safety and clarity. As Reb Menashe was aware, the word emunah – faith – plays on the word omen – nursing mother. Listening carefully to the nuance in the Hebrew language, we can thus appreciate that ‘faith’ is infused with connotations of the babe in its mother’s arms. Conversely, we can also see how the act of nursing a newborn child contains with in it echoes of God’s relationship with humankind. This is the experience of Leah nursing her baby Judah.
With this perspective on faith and on a mother’s love, we can begin to approach an understanding of how Leah’s praise to God became the matrix of our morning prayer (mantra*) of core certainty.I believe that Leah is able to experience herself in God’s reassuring loving presence because for the first time in her life she gives that very same experience to someone else. In experiencing for the first time her desire and ability to be unconditionally present for her son, she understands this experience to be a reflection of God’s unconditional presence for her. Just as she is the omen, the nursing mother, to Judah, God is the omen to her. (and so it is with all of our highest moments, when we touch the God in ourselves, touch the way God must feel)**
This proposition is more than a psychological theory about a woman projecting her emotions onto her God. To appreciate the profound mystical depths of Leah’s experience we need to examine the case of Noah as explored by Rabbi Mordechai Lainier of Ishbitz, a radical Hassidic teacher of the nineteenth century, in his stunning work, Mei Shiloach.
The Murmuring of God and the Flood Myth
God has flooded the earth, killing all living creatures apart from those saved in Noah’s Ark: namely Noah, his family, and one pair of all the world’s animals. After the flood is over and Noah and his family are on dry land, the text relates:
God said to his heart: “I will no longer curse the earth on account of human beings… I will never again smite all living beings as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21-22)
Classical biblical exegetes pose the obvious question: ‘Does Noah hear this? Is Noah aware of what God says when He talks to Himself?’ Or to give the question its full theological weight: ‘Can a human being ever know what God is thinking or feeling?’
Nachmanides and Seforno, two of the most important commentaries on the biblical text, answer the question decisively in the negative: ‘No, Noah does not hear what God says in his heart.’ Thus they reinterpret the text, each in his own way. But the Ishbitzer Rebbe flies in the face of classical commentary and answers the question with a quiet ‘yes’. ‘Yes, Noah in fact did hear the whisperings of the divine heart.’
The Ishbitzer (as he is popularly referred to in Hasidic circles) explains that when Noah leaves the ark he feels overcome by a sense of awe and creature-consciousness. Walking through a green land slowly beginning to return to life, he intuits that the great destruction of the flood was the result of humanity’s unrestrained drive for expansion. He experiences a great desire for boundaries, limits, and self-restraint. The Ishbitzer teaches that Noah then understands his feelings are but a reflection of the divine intent. If he feels a deep need for restraint and limitation, it must be because God, as it were, is similarly experiencing a desire for self- restraint and limitation. By listening to his own thoughts, Noah is able to ‘eavesdrop’ on God’s internal conversation. In a paradigm shifting understanding, the Rebbe of Ishbitz teaches that if I listen to the murmuring of my soul, I am in effect listening to the murmuring of the sacred God. (Mei Hashiloah, volume one, p. 19, column 2)
In many mystical works the proof text cited for this thought is in Job 19:26: “From my flesh I vision God.” The mystics explain this seeming paradox – seeing through flesh – by saying that perception of God is not a process of external observation, not a seeing from afar; rather, perception of God is an internal experience. Through my experience I see God. By listening carefully to the inner process of my being, I am able to understand the divinity within me and have some limited grasp of the divine itself. I ‘resonate’ with the divine.
And so the Ishbitzer teaches that by listening to the desires in his own heart, Noah was able to understand the desires in the heart of God. This deep intuitive dynamic connection with the divine through careful observation of one’s own self is an ultimate source of certainty. This is the psychospiritual understanding of the verse “Through my flesh I vision God.” I need to trust the deepest knowings of my heart. If I listen, my heart will be my guide – teaching me the certain secrets of my path.
Returning to Leah, we can now say – Leah understood that her newfound ability to love Judah unconditionally was a resonance of God’s unconditional love for her.
Why is the birth of Judah unique- what triggers this new experience that she was unable to access at the birth of her first three children? The implied answer of one Midrash is a radical surprise. According to the tradition Jacob had four wives. Each wife expected to have three children who together would be the twelve tribes of Israel. When Leah had a fourth child her understandings of the nature of her family and her role in it were momentarily suspended in her experience of surprise. In this moment she was opened up to new and higher understandings.
Through the prism of the certainty of her feelings of unconditional love and caring for her newborn son, Leah experienced the inner certainty of being unconditionally valued and loved by God. It was from this core certainty of being that Leah could joyfully proclaim “Hapaam odeh at hashem – this time I praise God,” a song of delight and certainty whose music we hear and echo every morning: “Modeh ani lefanecha…I affirm my self in your presence”.