by Marc Gafni
In one of Reb Shlomo’s last albums, he talks about the missing soldiers. Thinking about the soldiers and their families’ suffering he says, “We also have a little bit of a claim against God.” – Holy words from a holy master. This essay is but a commentary to honor the words of a master.
R. Nachman of Bratzlav has a profound and daring teaching on the word ‘Ayeh’ – Ayeh in Hebrew meaning where, in the sense of ‘where is God?’ This teaching is, I believe, one of the most powerful and perhaps radical of spiritual teachings on sacred certainty, sacred uncertainty and their interplay in our lives. I want to share with you the text directly, in my trans-interpretation of the original Hebrew text. The bracketed words are my additions:
“When one follows the path of intellect – (certainty)
one may encounter
multiple mistakes and pitfalls
There are many who fell
and who caused the world to fall
and all through their intellect (false certainty)
…when you fall into uncertainty
the fall perse
and the descent
are the ultimate ascent.
For all of creation…
from the ten revealed utterances of creation(certainty)
but the place of the fall
from the hidden utterance. (uncertainty)
(which is keter)
…in the place of the fall
certainty can give no nourishment
there only the hidden utterance – uncertainty
When a person says ‘Ayeh’- where is the place of his glory
when he realizes how distant he is
how deeply he has fallen into uncertainty
this – itself is his fixing”
R. Nachman teaches that in the depth of uncertainty is certainty – the experience of worth, value and being loved. But Ayeh is also more than a manifestation of uncertainty, it also is an expression of anger. When the Jew shouts ‘Where is God?’, with tears of frustration and pain drenching his existence, it is a cry of rage. And yet, in the anger at evil is the profound intuition that our rage matters, it is valuable- and it is holy.
Said differently, by holding uncertainty and not settling for explanations of suffering which our soul intuitively rejects, we reach a higher certainty – the certainty of rage. It may well be that in a century that has seen one hundred million people brutally killed – the only path back to God is the certainty of rage. Those who deny the holiness of our anger deny God.
Babies are part of our core certainty. They remind us of all that is pure. They somehow cut through our posturing and touch something deep inside us. Have you ever seen a baby brought into an office – no matter how serious the office grown men and women almost immediately revert to baby talk. Babies cry out for our protection. They call us to rise to our highest selves. Perhaps this is what Leah understood for the first time as she looked down at little Judah. It is from this place she cried out – ‘I have found myself before God.’
What happens however to our core certainties in a world in which babies are torn apart by laughing Gestapo. I grew up on the story of a little girl who saw a baby ripped apart in front of her by the Gestapo – and then buried the pieces. Apparently she had been hidden by a Christian family during the holocaust. Someone suspected her of being Jewish. The Gestapo came and massacred the house. The girl hid in a tree and watched the goings on below. When the Gestapo left she put the baby back together and buried him. She tells me that today as she nears sixty the baby’s face, his features are becoming clear. The girl is my mother. It was the defining story of my childhood. I heard it a thousand times. What are we do with the stories of horror we’ve experienced and the stories horror we’ve received? May we scream our question towards God, demanding in all of our human brokenness, an answer? If we challenge the majesty of God can we still remain in relationship?
“Where Is God” writes Weisel, “he Is hanging on the gallows”…In the body of a young boy. Incarnation is reversed in the horror of suffering. God becomes human and dies on the Gallows. For some this is the death of God about which some post holocaust theologians wrote with such pathos. The Biblical response is different. Biblical men and women work their way back to God not through pious imprecations justifying god nor through pathos filled announcements of Gods demise, but through the holy certainty of rage. Ultimately, as we studied a few chapters ago – ‘to struggle is to embrace,’ to cry out Ayeh?
R’ Nachman, I would suggest did not originate this understanding of Ayeh – rather it emerges out of a hidden genre of Biblical ‘Ayeh’ stories.
In the book of Judges, a messenger of God comes to Gideon at a time in which Israel has suffered greatly at the hand of the Midianite nation. The messenger of God offers certainty to Gideon: “God is with you, hero of valor,” and Gideon rejects this pat offer of security: “You tell me that God is with us? Then why is all this…” He cannot even give it a name. The silent questions ring out in the spaces between the words: ‘Why has all this suffering, why has all this pain defined our lives for so many years? Why are men killed? Why are children orphaned?’ And the text goes on: “‘Ayeh‘ – where are all of his great wonders which our fathers told us, saying God took us out of the land of Egypt. And now, God has abandoned us.”
Gideon the judge, in the tradition of Abraham, turns to God and says, “Does the Judge of the entire world not do justice?” Gideon the Judge challenges God, challenges the messenger and challenges the message. The divine response seems unclear, enigmatic and troubling; but also powerful, inspiring and deeply directive. God answers Gideon: “Go with this strength of yours and save Israel…behold, I have sent you.” (Judges 6: 12-14)
What “strength” is God referring to? I believe and at least one Midrash implicitly supports my reading, that God meant: ‘Go forth with the power of your uncertainty.’ God is confirming that if Gideon has the ability to doubt that this is the best of all possible worlds, this means he shares a common moral language with God. The wrestling with God in itself implies messengership on behalf of the divine: “Behold, I have sent you.” God confirms the great truth of Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev: to grapple with God is indeed to touch God, and to enter into the wrestling ring is to be a representative of all Israel, to plead redemption for all the world.
Gideon says to God’s messenger: “Where, ayeh, are all of His great wonders?” – and in these words cries out a prayer of holy uncertainty about God’s ways in our world.
The pinnacle of ayeh spirituality however is in the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. Isaac turns to his father and asks, “Ayeh? Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Many commentators recognize that in asking this question Isaac is beginning to understand the nature of his silent journey with his father. For three days he has walked beside his father in tense silence, and now without even meeting his son’s eyes, Abraham asks the servants to stay behind as the two of them climb the mountain alone. Laboring up the incline with the kindling weighing heavily on his back, noticing the knife and firestone in his father’s hand, Isaac feels a terrible darkness approaching. Can his father truly be intending to hurt him? When Isaac speaks we feel the shattering inside, the destruction of the child within, the death of the child’s innocence: ‘Father!’ – he says – and father answers, ‘Yes my son.’ ‘Here are the firestone and the wood; but where – ayeh – is the lamb for the burnt offering?’
For Mordechai Lainer of Ishbitz, mystical master par excellence, Isaac’s Ayeh is the embrace of God in uncertainty.
“Ayeh?” Isaac cannot suffer the uncertainty in silence. A child at the beginning of his life’s climb through uncertainty, Isaac’s question reaches the highest place.
Kabbalist, R. Isaac Luria comments on this word ayeh – where is God – in the liturgy of Shabbat, when we paraphrase the text in Isaiah and say, “Ayeh mekom kevodo? – God, where is the place of your involvement in the world?” Just as ulai has become our indicator of deep uncertainty in biblical text, so ayeh can be seen as the code word for the deepest questioning of the justice of God.
An early Kabbalistic text, Bahir, declares that there are ten levels which link the world of the divine with the world of man. Each one of these ten levels of divine presence represents another dimension of God in our world. They are referred to as the Ten Sefirot. When we perform a commandment, says Luria, we participate in one of these levels of the divine.
Indeed the mystical writers point out that the word Mitzvah has more than one meaning. Simply of course it mans commandment. The human in doing a mitzvah is thus seen as responding to a divine command which comes from outside the human being.
There is however a second sense of the word Mitzvah. It means Tzavtah – to be together with. When one performs a mitzvah one literally merges with divinity. One is together with God. Each Mitzvah in the mystical understanding moves me toward merger with a different Sefira, a different level of divinity. However, says Luria, we are only able to participate in the lowest seven levels. The human being, trapped in mortality, can never touch the highest three levels of divinity in this world. And yet one word can reach the heights. Ayeh.
Ayeh in Hebrew has three letters, alef, yod, hey. Alef, says Luria, is the letter that represents Keter – the divine crown, the highest sefirah – level of divinity in the world. Yod represents Chochmah – wisdom, the second highest level. And Hey is Binah – intuitive understanding, the third highest level. When the human being cries out to God in uncertainty – ayeh – he expresses the highest three levels of divinity and in so doing reaches beyond his mortal limits to touch “the highest.” Luria affirms that the expression of uncertainty in God does not contradict spirituality, but rather is the highest expression of the human search for divine connection.
Ayeh – where are you – the ultimate uncertainty – is then the highest level of religious authenticity!
From Marc Gafni