June 14, 2024
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Fully Focused on What Matters

True Pleasure

Last week, we saw that Rebbe Yaakov describes our world as the “corridor” that leads to the “palace” of the next world, where we experience the ultimate pleasure of closeness with Hashem (Avot 4:17). We also noted that the Mesilat Yesharim builds off this idea, teaching that we only find true meaning and joy in our closeness to Hashem in the next world.

Many misunderstand this teaching as implying that this world has no meaning or pleasure. This is incorrect; Rebbe Yaakov himself notes that (only) this world allows for teshuva and maasim tovim, both important goals. The Mesilat Yesharim (Introduction) applies Rebbe Yaakov’s statement to pleasure as well: once we identify closeness to Hashem as the ultimate pleasure, we know to pursue it in our world as well. The Mesilat Yesharim adds that focusing on our relationship with Hashem should help us avoid being distracted by the fleeting physical pleasures of this world.

 

With All of Our Heart

The Sefer HaChinuch (418) understands this focus as part of the mitzvah of ahavat Hashem. The commandment to love Hashem “bechol levavcha—with all your heart (Devarim 6:5),” means that closeness to Hashem should be the only thing we truly love and desire.

The Ktav VeHakabbalah uses the chinuch to explain the Torah prohibition of lo tachmod (Shemot 20:14). Many wonder how the Torah can expect us to control our emotions. Isn’t it natural to desire what others have (Ibn Ezra 20:14)? The Ktav VeHakabbalah answers that one properly focused upon their relationship with Hashem has no interest in other people’s physical possessions and circumstances. The ability to control our desires hinges upon internalizing the correct values.

Avraham Avinu had such values. He showed his priorities through his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, Yitzchak. Though he loved Yitzchak, his ultimate love for Hashem trumped all his other emotions. For this reason, Hashem stops referring to Yitzchak as the son Avraham “loves” after the akeida. Though Hashem describes Yitzchak this way when he commanded Avraham to sacrifice him (Bereishit 22:2), Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak—out of love for Hashem—showed that his love for Hashem outweighed his love for his son.

This is why the Baal HaTurim (Devarim 6:5) associates the words “bechol levavcha” with Avraham. Avraham Avinu’s love for Hashem was complete: it was the focus of his entire heart, and it thus trumped all his other emotions. This is why Avraham is the only person Hashem called “ohavi—my lover (Yeshayahu 41:8).”

 

With All of Our Mind

Our focus on Hashem should also be proactive and conscious. This is how the Ramban (Devarim 11:22) explains the mitzvah of deveikut, to “cling” to Hashem. As we obviously cannot physically cling to Hashem, what does the Torah expect from us?

The Ramban explains that “deveikut” means constantly focusing on and being conscious of Hashem’s existence. Rabbeinu Bachye (Devarim 13:5)—the Ramban’s student—elaborates: “Even when a person is involved in business, something ostensibly ‘secular,’ his thoughts should still be on his relationship with Hashem.”

The Rema understood this idea to be so fundamental that he used it to open his comments on the Shulchan Aruch: “‘Shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid,’ hu klal gadol baTorah …—“I place Hashem before me at all times (Tehillim 16:8), this is an overarching Torah principle … (Orach Chaim 1:1).”

The Rambam is a precursor to this idea, which he describes in both his halachic and philosophical works. In his Mishneh Torah (Teshuvah 10:3), the Rambam evocatively writes that a person should be as constantly preoccupied with Hashem as a man is with a woman he loves. Similarly, at the end of his Moreh Nevuchim (3:51), the Rambam writes that reflection upon God is Judaism’s central goal. Mitzvot, tefillot and Torah learning aim to facilitate this reflection.

The Rambam adds practical advice for developing this sense of God-consciousness. First, we should work on maintaining our focus on Hashem during tefillah and kriyat shema. After succeeding at this, we should aim to think about Hashem while learning Torah and reciting brachot. When we say “Baruch atah Hashem,” we should consider the one we are addressing—Hashem. The Rambam concludes that focusing upon Hashem while engaged in spiritual activities naturally leads to reflecting upon Him, while engaging in mundane matters as well.

 

In Our World

This focus is incredibly challenging in our preoccupied contemporary society. Modern communication—which constantly floods us with information and ideas—makes it extremely challenging to step back and reflect upon and connect with Hashem.

We should use Shabbat as a time to disconnect from distractions and focus more on our relationship with Hashem. During the week, we should make sure to take advantage of (at least) times of tefillah, brachot, Torah learning and mitzvah observance as opportunities to connect with Hashem.

Let’s remember the ultimate goal of this world and work to focus upon and achieve it.


Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi.

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