“For this shall everyone that is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found – eit matzo.” – Psalm 32: 6
When is the time in our life when God is truly found? When do we sincerely turn to Him/Her? What is it that we pray for?
The Talmud Brachot 8A struggles with this question. The Rabbis provide us with several different answers. The first response comes from Rabbi Chanina. Rabbi Chanina states that we “find God” when we are looking for a wife or husband.
It is hard to find the right partner in life. The Talmud Sanhedrin 22A states: “Matching life-partners is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.” Each person is different. Each person has their own particular ideas and habits. It is not easy to find someone who will care about what is important to us; someone who will share the same hopes and dreams. Uniting two people together is no simple matter.
Rabbi Chanina’s answer also recognizes the tremendous importance of our choice of spouse in life. The person who is our life companion will have a profound effect on the type of life we live and the person that we become. Will they help us to succeed in life or constantly tear us down? Will they build a home that is permeated with harmony and love, or one that is filled with anger and discord? Will they turn us toward God or away from Him?
On another level, Rabbi Chanina’s answer speaks to the whole spectrum of human concerns. We look to God for Divine aid in forming a relationship, building a family, and making our way in the world. We worry about our spouse and children more than anything else in our life. It is here that we most need the help of heaven in order to succeed.
This is Rabbi Chanina’s answer to the question of eit matzo – the moment when God is found. Let us now consider to the next answer.
Rabbi Natan teaches that eit matzo refers to Torah learning. It is not regarding material matters that we need God the most; it is in matters of the Spirit. We need God to help draw us toward Him, to aid us in knowing Him/Her. We need God to bestow upon us wisdom and understanding, to bless us with God awareness and enlightenment.
This second answer embodies the essence of the rabbinic ethos about the spiritual life. For the Rabbis, God is not reached so much through prayer or meditation as through learning – through the study of the Holy Scriptures. In the passage that follows shortly after this section in the Talmud, Rabbi Chiyya bar Ami states in the name of Ulla:
“Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, God has no place to dwell in the world, except the four amot [cubits] of halacha [Jewish Law].”
After the destruction of the Temple and the end of prophecy, God dwells in the mind of the devotee.
This approach to the spiritual life is what the Yogis call jnana – the path of the mind. By delving into the mysteries of the inner world and the nature of the spiritual path (halacha means walking toward God), we expand our consciousness and touch upon that which is Infinite and Eternal. The Rabbis understood that in such an endeavor, mere intellectual prowess is not enough, God’s help is essential. Without Divine grace, we will achieve nothing.
Perhaps this answer of Rabbi Natan is also telling us something else. The truth is that we will only turn to God for help in finding a spouse and raising a family, if we live a life where God is the centerpoint. If God is absent from our daily lives; then He will also be absent when we make the important decisions in our lives.
The third answer of the Rabbis might be considered a response to the two previous ones. Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak proposes that the time when people turn to God is at the moment of death. Yes, it is true, he is saying, if God is not part of our daily life, then He will also not be part of our important life choices. However, as our own death draws near, everyone, no matter who they are, thinks about God.
How will we die? Will it be a gentle kiss or a painful wrenching? Will we leave this world while in good health and full control of all our faculties, or will there be a slow descent into illness and feeble-mindedness?
In the face of death, all of our petty concerns seem meaningless. Our material pursuits are temporary, transient and fleeting. We take nothing with us when we die. Our possessions and loved ones must be left behind. The only thing we can hold onto at the moment of death is God.
Rabbi Yochanan gives us the next answer. He says that we need God with us at our grave. When we die, we can do nothing to protect our dead body, nor can we do anything to change the way in which people will think of us. Our dignity and wellbeing are in God’s Hands. Two people can live similar lives, do the same actions and attain the same achievements, and still be left with very different legacies. We need God to be gracious to us with the memory that we leave behind in the world.
The last answer the Rabbis provide us is quite astonishing. In fact, at first glance it seems ridiculous. Mar Zutra suggests that the time we need God the most is when we are looking for a place to go to the bathroom.
The commentators go on to explain that in Babylonia, where the Talmud was written, there was water everywhere and it was hard to find a place where one could dig the necessary hole. Therefore, the Rabbis were forced to walk long distances to find an appropriate spot. This helps to elucidate the issue further, but it still does not make sense of what Mar Zutra says. And to make matters worse, the Talmud concludes that Mar Zutra’s answer is the best. How can this be? What is Mar Zutra telling us with his answer? Why does it meet with the Rabbis’ unanimous approval?
Going to the bathroom is the most mundane and everyday matter of life. It is something everyone does all the time. The bathroom is a very down to earth practical issue. It is as if Mar Zutra is telling us: forget about all of your lofty ideas about when we need to turn to God, we need to turn to God for everything in life. Even the simplest of the simple matters needs God’s blessing. Without God’s Grace, we could not exist for even a single moment.
Mar Zutra’s answer epitomizes the Rabbis approach to the spiritual life. It is an approach that has become the central pillar of Judaism over the millennia.
We need God’s help to look for a spouse and raise a family. We also require God’s aid in making our way toward Him/Her. We certainly want God to be with us at the moment of death. And we depend on Him to uphold our name and dignity after we are gone. But most of all, we need God to support and guide us through the challenges of daily existence. We need Him to walk beside us all through our life. For the moment when we really need to find God is right now.
copyright © 2011, by Yoel Glick