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May 28, 2023

Protest as Prayer (Part 13): There is a Spirit in Man


Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney


By Marc Gafni

This post is continued from Part 12.

One of the most striking formulations of the Yehuda Moment in Chassidut is the movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov’s, teaching on a verse in the Book of Job. The verse in Job reads “There is a spirit in man — the breath of God — which gives wisdom.”

These words, which appear towards the end of the book, are spoken by Elihu in rejection of the ‘punishment for sin’ theodicy offered as a certainty by Job’s friends. The Baal Shem Tov interprets the verse: ‘The breath of God is the spirit of man’.

This is the intent of the prophet-poet writing in the sixth century before the Common Era. Jeremiah is describing redemption when he writes:

This shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel in the ultimate days … I will give my Torah through their inner selves, I will write it in their hearts … and no more will a man teach his neighbor and every man his brother saying, ‘Know God,’ for they shall all know me. From the least of them to the most of them. (Jeremiah 31: 32-3)

Indeed R. Kook, philosopher-mystic of the early twentieth century whose writings we have had occasion to visit, in his spiritual journal, ‘Mists of Purity,’ published after his death, refers to the Jeremiah text in precisely this manner. No longer, he writes, will sources of spiritual authority and knowledge be outside of ourselves. Certainty is not taught. It rather comes from the inner certainty of the spirit which is the sacred birthright of every person. The below passage from R. Kook is just too beautiful to relegate to a footnote.

Anything that enters the soul
from the outflow of a sister soul
even though beneficial in some aspect,
for in the end the receiving soul acquires some knowledge,
or sometimes a good or useful feeling
at the same time it also damages her
in that it mixes in an alien element into her essence.
And the world cannot come together in wholeness
except through a stance of negation of the alien influence:
“No longer will man teach his fellow
or a man teach his brother, saying: ‘Know God.’
For all will know Me, from the smallest among them to the greatest.”
With regard to each individual,
the process that negates alien influence,
even though it seems to take destructive form, this very collapse
is what leads to the most lasting and perfected structure.

And this is the only gateway to the World to Come,
for the Holy One Blessed be He makes a separate Eden
for each individual:
‘Your Eden’ is not written, rather ‘Your Edens.’

The communal consciousness of the Nation
to guard against alien influences
is the essence of its revival.
It penetrates as individual agitation
which generates destruction,
makes revolutions
and builds new worlds,
everlasting and shining.

This is the Yehuda Moment — this is core certainty which allows us to hold the light of our uncertainty — without the vessels shattering.


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