By Yaakov Klein
(This article was written for the Pesach edition of Aish UK’s Perspectives Magazine.)
In sharp contrast to the traditional approach of the other Chassidic masters, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772 – 1810) would often play chess with the “enlightened” Jews of Uman, Jews who had forsaken the ancient tradition of their birth for what they saw as being a more sophisticated lifestyle. As they played, the great master would lovingly engage these Jews in dialogue about religion in the hope that they might realize their error and return to their roots. One day, during one of these sessions, the topic of God arose.
“Rabbi, you are clearly a man of superior intelligence who has mastered many wisdoms and academic disciplines” began one of the intellectuals. “How, then, can you believe that there is a “man in the sky”, a mythical being who created the unfeeling natural world that surrounds us? I find believing in God to be just as preposterous as believing in unicorns or dragons!”
Rebbe Nachman looked up from the game, his eyes burning with intensity. “My friend” he said, “Listen well. The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”
The immature and limited understanding of God maintained by much of the world is something that an intellectually honest person has justified difficulty accepting as truth. But when we encounter the understanding of God presented by our holy tradition, we soon come to recognize that it is so much more profound, nuanced, deep, and sensible than we ever could have imagined. Rebbe Nachman didn’t tell the enlightened Jews of Uman to take a leap of faith. He asked only that they cast aside the preconceived “image” of the fairytale God presented by society and allow themselves to explore the depth of the Torah’s understanding. He knew that if they would engage in serious Torah study, peeling back layer after layer of understanding to reveal the inner light and depth carefully concealed underneath, they would find another God waiting at the core – a God they could indeed believe in.
One of the ways to begin finding the “believable God” hidden within what is often an unbelievable tradition is to explore the inner meaning of the stories, events, and laws of the Torah. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865-1935) taught that the Jewish soul longs for great expanses in religious thought; broad ideas which bind disparate concepts, unify great ideals, and whose powerful light can illuminate the innumerable minutia of the Jewish experience. In this essay, we hope to experience this kind of learning by exploring the deep meaning held within the two iconic mountains in the Jewish tradition – Mount Sinai, and the Temple Mount.
On the surface, the two mountains of Judaism seem kind of trivial. Their significance appears to depend only upon the function they served; Mount Sinai as the site for the giving of the Torah and the Temple Mount as the site upon which the holy Temple was built. However, the Chassidic masters revealed an entirely new level of understanding.
What is the difference between a teacher and a father? Although there are many, the prime difference between them is the difference between the conditional and unconditional nature of their relationships. A student’s relationship with his teacher is conditional. When he is behaving in class and absorbing the material, he is a student of his teacher, but if his constant disruption necessitates his transfer to a different program, his relationship with the teacher is immediately terminated. A child’s relationship with his father, however, is unconditional. No matter how poorly the son behaves or how badly he angers his father, he remains his father’s son. Even if he rejects his father entirely and runs away, it doesn’t help in the slightest. Nothing he does can sever that bond.
Now, what if a child were to be taught by his father? It follows that these two relationships would function at once. Put more accurately, there would be two levels to the relationship. On one level, it is true that if the child were never to learn anything, the father would cease to be his teacher. However, because the teacher is also his father, there is a level to their relationship that runs so much deeper in which their bond cannot possibly be broken – permeated, as it is, with unconditional love.
The Chassidic masters teach that these two levels are present in God’s relationship with every Jew: He is both our Teacher and our Father. The headquarters for this deep concept are the two mountains of Judaism, Mount Sinai and the Temple Mount
Whereas the biblical personality most closely connected with Mount Sinai is Moshe Rabbeinu (“Moshe our Teacher“), as he alone climbed the mountain to receive the entirety of Torah, the biblical personalities most bound with the Temple Mount are the Avos (“Fathers“), Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, each of whom revealed a new dimension of the place.
Mount Sinai represents the dynamic of our relationship with God in which He is our Teacher. On this level, our relationship with the Source of life exists to the degree that we heed His Will as revealed in the Torah, the Book of Life. The bursts of fire, clouds of smoke, and loud noises which accompanied the giving of the Torah are emblematic of its rigidity and the fearsome responsibility involved in our acceptance of its authority. If we are students of the Torah and committed to following its myriad laws and statutes, Hashem is our teacher; “Hamelameid Torah l’amo Yisrael – He Who teaches Torah to the Jewish nation“. However, if we turn our back on Hashem’s Will and disconnect from the holy Torah, ceasing to be students, then Hashem ceases to be our teacher – that aspect of our relationship is terminated.
However, there is another level of our relationship with Hashem, a far deeper level – the dynamic of the Temple Mount. In this aspect, the relationship between each individual Jew and the Master of the world is entirely unbreakable. The Temple Mount radiates the light of Hashem our Father, Who loves His children unconditionally regardless of how poorly they may behave or how disconnected they may become. The Temple was the place where the most distant sinners could bring sacrifices to Hashem and recalibrate their alignment with the Divine. It was the place where each year, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holiest and achieve repentance for the entire Jewish nation.
As we walk the narrow bridge of spiritual growth, it is imperative that we consider our relationship with Hashem using this dichotomy – teacher and parent, Mount Sinai and Temple Mount. The aspect of Mount Sinai demands that we be attentive students, intent on internalizing and actualizing Hashem’s Will in our daily lives through the medium of Halacha. It urges us on to making the sacrifices necessary for us, the students, to earn a highly coveted relationship with the Master Teacher, the Author of existence. However, by the same token, the aspect of Temple Mount gives us encouragement, strength, and hope during lapses in our connection, when the road to spiritual success is strewn with impassible obstacles and the journey seems useless. At the moment when the Satan succeeds in convincing us that, due to our repeated failings, God has no interest in our efforts, the smoke of the incense wafts out of the Holy Temple in our hearts, filling our world with light, comfort, and the knowledge that, like a father who loves his children unconditionally, Hashem adores us, takes pride in our every movement, and cherishes the tiniest attempt to grow close to Him.
The key, as in most areas of life, is balance. Once that balance is struck, the Jew finds him or herself in a relationship with Hashem which, in times of success, encourages even greater levels of commitment to the Torah lifestyle, and, in times of despair, shines the light of divine encouragement, support, and everlasting hope.
Climbing the mountain of spiritual success requires that we never lose sight of these two special mountains, Mount Sinai and the Temple Mount. “I lift my eyes to the mountains… my help comes from God.“
Yaakov Klein is an inspirational educator and musician. He is the author of two books, Sparks from Berditchov and Sunlight of Redemption (Feldheim). After studying in the Mir Yeshiva, Yaakov and his wife Shira settled in Chicago, where he taught for the Illinois Center for Jewish Studies. After moving to back to Israel in 2018, Yaakov spends his days lecturing in various yeshivot, producing music, and working on future books.