“No good thing will He withhold from those who walk betamim – in sincerity and simplicity.” (Psalm 84:12) Because the way of God is to do good, therefore He will not hold back good from those who walk with sincerity and simplicity, on whatever level they are, as long as they act betemimut – with sincerity and simplicity.”- Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhenzk
“Simplicity is higher than everything else.” – Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
There is a great power to simplicity. I do not mean simple-mindedness, but straightforward and clear ideas and practices. In Judaism, we have so many layers of complexity. Sometimes, it seems as if we have added additional levels of complexity to make up for a lack of true understanding.
There is an old saying, “Shallow brooks babble.” Jewish teaching can sound like a babbling brook that communicates layer after layer of ideas without really awakening the inner truth. Going right to the source of inspiration is what is needed; ideas whose plain expression will uplift the heart and stir the soul.
The same is true in our relationship with God; heart to heart talk is what is called for, not a multitude of words. If we touch the living source, words become superfluous. Moses used just five words in his prayer to God for his sister Miriam: “El na, refana na la”; Please, O Lord, heal her. (Numbers 12:13)
The same is true with ritual. This does not mean that one cannot fulfill the halachic obligation, but we need to strip off the layers of chumrah (added strict observance), return to the essential practice and let the Divine light shine through.
Some people have a love for the complex structure of religion even more than God Himself. A profusion of words, thoughts and actions dilutes the spiritual power. It makes it difficult for the mind to be clear and focused. It places the energy into the practice rather than the intention of what we are doing, rather than the living spiritual connection and the inner link with God.
The Hasidic Master, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, understood this to be the hidden interpretation of the Biblical command in Deuteronomy 4:23: “Lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which He made with you, and you shall make an image or likeness of anything, which the Lord your God has commanded you.”An image or likeness, the Kotzker Rebbe explains, is the form of an object and not the essence itself. God is warning us not to concentrate on the external form of the mitzvot and forget the essence. He is warning us that if we perform the mitzvot without kavanah (spiritual intention), they will become empty physical gestures that are no better than idol worship.
If our inner self is weak, we need an elaborate outer garment to make up for the lack of substance. If we have a strong inner presence, even the simplest garment will do. It takes a lot more effort and understanding to explain complex ideas in simple terms. To find a few poignant words requires a great deal of focus and clarity. To know the gesture that is appropriate to the situation and moment demands insight and tremendous sensitivity. It is out of such inspiration that real wisdom, prayer and ritual arise.
Simplicity is the hallmark of the Divine. The forms in nature are extraordinary for their simplicity and beauty. Even when the composition is complex there is an innate sense of clarity and harmony to the overall structure. Simple designs tend to harmony and balance; complex designs clutter the physical environment and the mind.
The same is true with the inner space of our being. We need to develop temimut in our relationship with God. Again, it is not a question of being simple-minded or of blind faith, but of being direct with God and completely honest. He knows who we are; there is nothing that we can hide from Him. We need to deepen our love and devotion for the Lord without making any stipulations or caveats. We should make no involved bargains with God – no arrangements, no “You do this and I will do that.”
Temimut, then, means not being overly high-minded or philosophical about God, but rather focusing on the experience of His living presence. Instead of intricate visualizations of sefirot, supernal countenances and permutations of the Divine Name, we need to concentrate on direct effortless communion.
There is a story about a simple villager in England around whom there occurred miraculous cures. When a journalist asked the villager if he had any particular spiritual practices, he replied, “I go to church and I sit and look at the Lord, and the Lord, He looks back at me.”
There is a deeper understanding to this kind of simplicity. The Hasidic Master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, teaches that there are two approaches to God. In the first approach, we serve God using the powers of our human mind. In the second approach, we just look toward the Infinite, the Ein Sof. Our normal mind cannot be used in this approach, he explains; it is an experience that can only be attained through the help and grace of God. In this approach, our normal mind is annihilated, and when we return to normal consciousness, we are full of Divine power and energy.
The Hasidic text Or Haganuz expands further upon this concept. In the name of the Baal Shem, the author declares that we need to keep binding ourselves to God until it is no longer necessary for us to imagine that He is in front of us anymore, because we “see” Him before us at every moment; because the light of the Infinite surrounds us and the whole of our being is immersed in the sacred light of the Divine Presence. This is the meaning of, “I look at the Lord and the Lord, He looks back at me.”
Rebbe Nachman teaches that we reach this kind of holy simplicity by stripping away all of our chokhmot – all of our cleverness, all of our carefully constructed rationales, all of our spiritual pride and vanity. We need to remove all of the preconceptions and expectations that create a barrier between us and God, between us and our true Self – between us and the One Eternal Reality. Then, naked and pure, we will be drawn into the intimate embrace of the Lord.
About two hundred years ago, there was a Zen monk in Japan that called himself “Ryokan, the Great Fool”, who lived a poor and simple life. One night Ryokan came home to his mountain hermitage to find that all of his meager belongings had been stolen. In response, he made spontaneously composed the following Haikun:
“The moon out the window!
Left by the thief unstolen.”
Ryokan was a “great fool” regarding the matters that most people hold dear. He was a simpleton as far as the affairs of this world are concerned. But he was profoundly wise with respect to matters of eternity. And he had a clear perception of the true reality.
Each of these spiritual masters was by no means a simpleton. They all had great minds and were wise teachers. When they spoke of temimut, they were talking about a whole other level of consciousness; a holy simplicity that is born out of the knowledge that true wisdom begins once we realize that we don’t know anything at all. It is to touch this place of humility, simplicity and direct experience that we are striving. To go about our daily lives immersed in the Divine light of the Ein Sof, the Infinite and Absolute, is our highest aspiration and goal
Copyright © 2009, by Yoel Glick
- Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, A Flower Does Not Talk, p. 137↵