On the Weekly Torah Portion of Beshalach

FireThis week’s Torah portion, beshalach (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16), starts the narration of the People of Israel’s long sojourn through the desert. It is in this portion that we read about the parting of the Dead Sea as well as about the manna that was sent down from heaven by YHVH.

One story in particular is relevant to the life of a spiritual aspirant in our day an age. We are told that while in the desert, the People of Israel received direct guidance from God:

וַיהוָה הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן לַנְחֹתָם הַדֶּרֶךְ וְלַיְלָה בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ לְהָאִיר לָהֶם לָלֶכֶת יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה: לֹא יָמִישׁ עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן יוֹמָם וְעַמּוּד הָאֵשׁ לָיְלָה לִפְנֵי הָעָם:
YHVH went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 21-22)

Wouldn’t we all want to have such a cosmic GPS? Would we not want God—the energy and intelligence that creates and maintains the entire universe—to guide our every step on our path from bondage to liberation?

Impossible, you say? Not so fast. It may be that this is precisely what this story is trying to tell us: that for those who have the eyes to see and ears to hear, divine guidance is as clear as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night at all times.

But how does one attune oneself to this “channel of perpetual guidance”? Surely, our physical eyes do not perceive pillars of cloud or fire in our immediate vicinity. Indeed, later in the Bible, in the First Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah is told where such guidance can be found.

We read that prophet Elijah, escaping the wrath of queen Jezebel, hides in a cave on Mount Sinai. At one point he is instructed to come out and “stand on the mountain before YHVH.” The text says:

וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לֹא בָרוּחַ יְהוָה וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְהוָה: וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהוָה וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה:
And lo, YHVH passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of YHVH; but YHVH was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but YHVH was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire, but YHVH was not in the fire. And after the fire—the sound of subtle silence. (1 Kings 19: 11-12).

That “sound of subtle silence” (in Hebrew kol dmama daka, better known in English as “a still, small voice”) is that inaudible, sacred, ever-present frequency that underlies the tumultuous commotion of the world. That “channel” never stops transmitting, but we need to bring our attention there, and listen with different ears.

Meister Eckhart, a 14th Century German mystic whose inspired sermons continue to excite generations of spiritual aspirants to this very day, gave a beautiful teaching on the subject. He was commenting on a story in the Gospels, about how Jesus’ parents lost track of him during a journey to Jerusalem. The Gospel says:

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.  And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.  When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:41-47)

For Eckhart, this story is a metaphor for one’s search for God. When one lives unconsciously, one is so self-absorbed that one does not know whether or not one is connected to God. This is symbolized by the fact that “the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it” (the parents, in this story, symbolize the seekers).

As life progresses, one notices that something is missing, but thinks that the solution is near, and one is bound to stumble upon it sooner or later in the natural course of one’s life. “Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey.

It does not take long for an introspective soul to realize that one has to look deeper. One may not be ready for a radical change yet—one still looks for God in the familiar—but the intensity of one’s search increases. “Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.

When that fails, one decides to be much more focused and serious. One starts devoting all of one’s energy to the search, engaging in prayer, meditation, and holy practices. This, Meister Eckhart says, is what is meant by the fact that the parents returned to the holy city, to Jerusalem, and looked for boy Jesus within its walls. But even after three days of constant searching in the holy city, they could not find him. In other words, holy, religious pursuits in themselves are no guarantee for finding God.

Where do they find God eventually? In the temple, which for Eckhart is a metaphor for the deepest level of Self, the deepest level of one’s consciousness. When one finally steps into that inner realm, one realizes that God has been there all along, teaching. Like the pillars of cloud by day and fire by night, God is always there, guiding and instructing.

Both the Elijah story and Eckhart’s sermon point us to the depth of our awareness as the place where divine guidance can be found. And not surprisingly, the Qur’an agrees:

وَٱذۡكُر رَّبَّكَ فِى نَفۡسِكَ تَضَرُّعً۬ا وَخِيفَةً۬ وَدُونَ ٱلۡجَهۡرِ مِنَ ٱلۡقَوۡلِ بِٱلۡغُدُوِّ وَٱلۡأَصَالِ وَلَا تَكُن مِّنَ ٱلۡغَـٰفِلِينَ
And do thou remember thy Lord within thyself humbly and with awe, below thy breath, at morn and evening. And be not thou of the neglectful. (7:205)

Indeed, it is through perseverance in the internal cultivation of the awareness (“within thyself…below thy breath”), regularly (“at morn and evening”) and consistently (“And be not thou of the neglectful”) that the internal channel of divine guidance can be heard.

May the practice of all aspirants after Truth bear fruit!

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)