As the hart pants after the water brooks,
So my soul pants after thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God:
When shall I come and appear before God?
The natural state of the soul is an intense longing to return to God. This yearning deepens when the soul awakens to life in this world, where it is so far from the holiness and oneness of its source.
According to Rebbe Natan of Nemirov, the reason for our descent into this world is to awaken this great spiritual yearning within us. Like a child separated from his parent, we long to return to our true home.
Rebbe Natan teaches that the soul could not survive its terrible separation but for the Divine livingness that it contacts in other people and objects. All the physical desires that we experience are the external expression of the desire of the soul to touch the spark of Divine livingness that is at the heart of all that exists.
When we eat or drink or seek sexual experience, it is this life force that we are actually striving to contact. We are trying to revive our deadened material consciousness by linking into the essential life force of the universe. We are attempting to break through our own sense of limitation by tapping into that which is most “alive.” Some of these actions, of course, also fulfill fundamental physical needs. But at the deepest level, they serve as a means of keeping our soul from expiring from the pain of its separation from God.
If we want to spiritually survive in this world, we need to learn how to extract the maximum amount of “Divine life” from every situation. We accomplish this by bringing God into every encounter and conversation, by focusing on the pure spark of Divinity and not the outer form, by binding each experience to God, thereby drawing it into the realm of holiness.
In the view of Rebbe Natan, God has given us specific tools to achieve this task. These tools are the mitzvot (commandments or spiritual deeds). This is the true purpose of the mitzvot, to teach us how to liberate the Divine life that is concealed in every experience and encounter.
When Moses descended from Mount Sinai and told the Children of Israel all that God had said to him, the Children of Israel responded, “All that the Lord has said, naaseh ve nishma, we will do and obey.” (Exodus 24:7)
Rebbe Natan explains that every mitzvah has these two aspects, naaseh and nishma. Naaseh is the physical act – the performance of the mitzvah, and nishma is the mindset, the will and desire that we put into it. Together, they form the spiritual foundation for the work of liberating the Divine life in all that is.
It is the power of our longing for God that makes a mitzvah complete. Without our longing, the mitzvah is lifeless. Only when we infuse a mitzvah with our yearning for God does it become potent and spiritually alive.
The Midrash tells us that when the Children of Israel responded “naaseh ve nishma” (we will do and obey) to God at Mount Sinai, the angels came down from heaven and bestowed two crowns of light upon their heads. However, after the sin of the Golden Calf, the crown of naaseh was taken away from them and only the crown of nishma remained.
At Sinai, the Children of Israel were so infused with the power of Divine Presence that they were in complete resonance with the Will of God. However, after they made the Golden Calf, they lost this complete resonance with the Divine Will, and were left with only the desire to do God’s Will without the capacity to fulfill it.
What this means, Rebbe Natan says, is that since that time, all which is left to us is our longing for God. Therefore, it is through the power of our spiritual longing that we must reclaim the crown of naaseh and recover the power to fulfill God’s Will as it should be.
All the troubles in our life, Rebbe Natan concludes, are troubles that arise because we are unable to fulfill the Will of God. Similarly, our only real consolation amid our difficulties comes from our longing for God. For as long as we continue to long for God, there is still hope that we will succeed in doing His Will, and thus fulfill our life.
This truth is expressed for us in the Torah when, following the story of the Golden Calf, God tells the Children of Israel to build the Mishkan or Tabernacle. When God commands Moses to ask the Children of Israel for the materials needed to build the Mishkan, God tells him that each person should donate towards the building of the Mishkan “according to the prompting of his heart.” (Exodus 25:2) We create a vessel for the Divine Presence by giving from the place of longing for God inside us. It is this “prompting of the heart” which provides us with the spiritual “materials” that we need to build a temple for the Lord.
The desire for God has its source in the infinite and eternal Will of God. There is a spark of the Will of God that is implanted within each of us. This spark fills us with the will to live, and the desire to grow and evolve. The more we bind ourselves to this spark, the more the power of the Will of God will become alive within us, and the more vital and conscious we ourselves will become.
Swami Brahmananda teaches that the purpose of all spiritual disciplines is to develop our will. The purer our minds, he declares, the more our willpower will increase. The more we strengthen our willpower, the closer we will move towards God.
He cites the Buddha as an example. Sitting under the Bo-tree, the Buddha resolved, “Either my body will be dried up on this seat or I shall attain nirvana [liberation].” We too need to develop this same determination, Swami Brahmananda urges. We need to give up all our procrastination and hesitation and resolve to realize God in this very life.
It is indispensable for everyone to strengthen his or her longing for God, from the simplest person to the greatest tzaddik. It is through the power of our yearning for God that we ascend into the higher realm and merge ourselves with our supernal source.
Rebbe Natan had great faith in the power of spiritual longing. He believed that the spiritual power of our inner yearnings could annihilate our enemies (internal and external), fill us with unbounded joy, and bring peace to the world. The Zohar speaks of hundreds of worlds of longing. Rebbe Natan was sure that if we link ourselves with this immense reservoir of spiritual power, we could accomplish anything.
There is an essential paradox here. On the one hand, we have lost our resonance with the Will of God, the fundamental willpower to do His will and not our own. On the other hand, we still have the longing for God within us, and by strengthening this longing we can awaken the Divine willpower that is hidden within us. Yet this longing is not enough, it must be combined with the work of spiritual disciplines. These practices channel our longing into a vehicle that will build the strength of our will.
These two attributes, longing and willpower, are two sides of the same Divine power. The one reinforces the other. It through our longing for God that we find the strength to increase our willpower, and it is by building up our willpower that we harness the spiritual energy which is embodied in our inner yearning.
The act of a mitzvah creates the form to hold the Divine spark. Our willpower gives us the force which enables us to build that vessel. Our spiritual longing then energizes the vessel and raises it up to God.
A mitzvah is more than just an act of obedience; it is the vehicle for translating our longing for God into the fulfillment of His Will. It is the means by which we become alive with the Will of God. The ability to convert longing into willpower is the key that will enable us, in the words of the Psalm that began this teaching, to “appear before God.”
This is the difference between doing a spiritual act or mitzvah and simply performing physical disciplines. When we do a mitzvah, we are not just increasing our willpower; we are aligning ourselves with the Will of God. We are preparing a vessel for the Divine Presence to dwell within us. We are striving to translate our deep longing for God into intimate union with Him.
This is the spiritual force that lies at the heart of the religious life: the yearning for God, the desire to bind ourselves to the Infinite, the urge to annihilate our lower self in the light of the Higher Self, the longing to become one with the Absolute.
As it is so beautifully expressed in the Shabbat prayers:
Beloved of [my] soul, merciful Father,
Draw Your servant to Your Will.[Then] Your servant will run
As swift as a deer
He will bow before Your Glory…
Glorious, resplendent One, Light of the world,
My soul is lovesick for You;
I beseech You, O God,
Pray heal it by showing it the sweetness of Your Splendor.
Then it will be strengthened and healed
And will experience everlasting joy.
Yedid Nefesh, by the Sixteenth Century Kabbalist, Rabbi Elazar Azikri
Copyright © 2009, by Yoel Glick
- A Guide to Spiritual Life: Spiritual Teachings of Swami Brahmananda, translated by Swami Chetanananda↵