In the many years that I have been following a spiritual path, it has been my great good fortune to have studied and served under various teachers whom could truly be called “holy”—known as “tzadikim,” in the Jewish tradition. Despite the differences in their ages and backgrounds, they shared one remarkable trait—a pure and unadulterated commitment to spiritual truth. These men and women were so totally devoted to serving God that the world simply had no existence for them. Not only were they not attracted to mundane pleasures, life itself was meaningless to them outside a context of worship. I have seen tzaddikim who have prayed to the point of physical collapse, who gave their last dollar to the poor, though they had no source of income, and who literally put their lives in danger in order to uphold the minutia of religious observance.
One of these teachers, Rabbi Mordechai Zilber—one of the preeminent hasidic thinkers today and a man of immense spiritual intensity—has explained that a tzaddik’s uniqueness lies in the profound single-mindedness he invests in every act of devotion: be it prayer, study, or good deeds. At the moment of worship, there are no thoughts of anything else: no place to go and nothing else to do, no past or future, no self-interests or concerns. There is only the individual standing before God in that particular framework of offering.
Needless to say, being around such people is incredibly inspiring, and it was my encounter with one such an individual about thirty-five years ago (Rabbi Dovid Din OBM) that set me on the path I have followed until today. To me, these people live in a world of “points”; that is, of absolute focus on the point of life. Rabbi Zilber has termed this “root existence,” for such a person lives in a constant relationship with the most fundamental aspects of life—the spiritual roots that underlie all other experiences and from which they derive their ultimate meaning. In a beautiful article that inspired me years ago, entitled “The Monk in Us,” Benedictine monk, Brother David Stiendl-Rast, defines the nature of monastic life as a pursuit of “peak experiences,” which he defines as “those moments in which meaning reveals itself to us—and we know it… [the] kind of thing that makes life worth living… that is somewhat elevated above your normal experience.” The monastic strives to reach the heart of the tradition—to ascend to the “point” of the mountain, as Brother David also calls it, and in that place, finds not only communion with God, but communality with seekers of every tradition.
Yet, while am I deeply drawn to such individuals, I cannot be like them. There is too much I would have to give up: my job, my family, my late-night Netflix binges, the myriad tasks and responsibilities that depend upon me each day—many of which seem the very antithesis of spirituality. Thus, while I gravitate toward such individuals, I just as often spin away. Like some lonesome satellite at the edge of space, pulled between centrifugal and centripetal forces, I find myself traveling in an eternal orbit around a point that I can neither reach nor fully escape.
Rabbi Zilber, in a brilliant essay on the topic of “hope,” discusses several negative aspects of a “circular” existence. The first, as we said, is this frequent feeling of emptiness, the sense that one lives on the mere periphery of life, rarely touching its core. A second problem, often accompanying the first, is this endless sense of repetition—a painful awareness of the days, months, and years that can spin by with little or no spiritual growth and development. Sadly, this can even be true of religious life, with its endlessly repeating rituals and practices, which can sap the life out of even the most enthusiastic practitioner, until one literally fulfills the verse: “Their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13).
Finally, unlike traveling a straight path, where the final destination can be seen from the outset, a circuitous journey is never clear, and the future is often fraught with doubts and misgivings. One cannot see “around the bend,” as it were, or ever be completely sure that the direction one follows is correct.In a related teaching, the great hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, spoke about “points” and “circles” as they apply to states of consciousness. Based upon the verse: “Back and front You have formed me” (Psalms 139:5), Rabbi Nachman writes that there are two modes of perception: direct and indirect. In indirect perception, a person approaches a topic from “behind,” as it were. The mind needs to go through many stages in order to grasp it, circling the topic from all sides before arriving at the central point. This indirect form of understanding depends upon discursive thought and analysis.
On the other hand, one can also grasp a truth “frontally.” In this mode of knowing, higher truths flood the mind in a direct, non-discursive way. Thought is swept away by the immediacy of spiritual knowledge: The mind races, the heart is inspired. Whereas the first mode of knowing takes time and requires the sharpening of the intellect, the second form of knowing is immediate and depends upon the purification of the soul.
But where does that leave us? Those who admire the intensity and purity of single-minded awareness, but cannot leave our circumlocutious paths? And on the global scale, those who long for a world of justice, peace and universal plenty, but find their goals ever receding beyond the horizon, whether due to greed, bureaucracy, or large-scale self-interests?
Rabbi Zilber speaks of an invisible connection that exists between a circumference and its center, between the periphery and the point—he calls it a line of hope. Hope is that part of us that connects directly to the truths that we hold deepest in our hearts, but which are not yet manifest in our lives. Whether these are inner, spiritual truths that we long to attain or universal goals that we work toward, hope is a line of soul that extends from our present world and anchors us to our dreams, pulling us forward and reminding us that our goals can and will be achieved, even in the face the most of convoluted obstacles.
It’s interesting to note that the Hebrew word for “Hope” is tikvah (as in the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah”—The Hope). The two-letter root of this word is kav—קו, which, in Hebrew, also means “a line.” Thus, the verb l’kavot—“to hope for”—can also be read as “to draw a line to.” For hope draws a line from the present to the future, from the real to the ideal, and from a peripheral existence to an essential one. It is not just an expression of passive longing but an act of affirmation. “Hope for the L-rd; be strong and take heart and hope for the L-rd” (Psalms 27:14), or as the Yiddish saying goes: “Tracht gut, vet zein gut” – “Think good and it will be good.”
The Talmud states (Ta’anit 31a) that in the world-to-come, the Holy One will make a circle of the righteous, and He will sit in the center. Each individual will point to Him with his finger and say, “Behold, this is our God for whom we hoped, that He may save us; this is the God for whom we hoped. We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).
That is, even when we lived in the circle world, when life took us down its inevitable round-about, confusing path, we never stopped hoping for God and His salvation. “This is God, for whom we hoped”–kivinu lo—to whom we drew a kav, a line, from the edge to the middle. Despite our most circuitous travels, we never lost hope. We never abandoned that straight line to the center. And now we see it. This is God, for whom we hoped. ♦