Devekut: How Can We Achieve Closeness with the Divine?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jared Anstandig

Devarim 11:22-23 teaches the mitzva of deveikut, or cleaving to God.

כִּי אִם־שָׁמֹר תִּשְׁמְרוּן אֶת־כָּל־הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשֹׂתָהּ

לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־ה׳ אֱלֹקיכֶם לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו וּלְדָבְקָה־בוֹ׃

וְהוֹרִישׁ ה׳ אֶת־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִלִּפְנֵיכֶם

וִירִשְׁתֶּם גּוֹיִם גְּדֹלִים וַעֲצֻמִים מִכֶּם׃

If, then, you faithfully keep all this Instruction that I command you to do, 

loving the LORD your God, walking in all His ways, and cleaving to Him,  

then the LORD will dislodge before you all these nations: 

you will dispossess nations greater and more numerous than you.

How can one cleave to God? Rashi, following Sifri, notes that this cannot refer to physical cleaving to God.  In Rashi’s words,

וַהֲלֹא אֵשׁ אוֹכְלָה הוּא!

But God is a consuming fire!

How could the Torah mandate that we cleave to Him?! It is impossible, and even approaching that degree of closeness is dangerous!

Chazal and Rashi responds that though we cannot cleave to God Himself, we fulfill this mitzvah by cleaving to the Sages and those who adhere to God’s will.  Rashi writes:

אֶלָּא הִדַּבֵּק בַּתַּלְמִידִים וּבַחֲכָמִים

וּמַעֲלֶה אֲנִי עָלֶיךָ כְּאִלּוּ נִדְבַּקְתָּ בּוֹ

Rather, cleave to the scholars and sages, 

and I will consider it as though you cleaved to Him.

We cleave to God, according to this, indirectly.  By being close to and supporting students and teachers of Torah we draw close to God.

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, in his Torah Temimah (to Devarim 4:4, note 2), comments that the rabbinic interpretation of this mitzvah seems to go far beyond what is necessary to explain the verse.  He writes

מה קשה ליה בכלל וכי אפשר להדבק בשכינה וכו’,

והלא אפשר לפרש בפשיטות

מלשון דביקות הנפש מאהבה וחבה יתירה

וכמ”ש דוד: דבקה נפשי אחריך?

What is the difficulty at all, such that we ask “is it possible to cleave to God, etc?!” 

We can explain this simply 

by translating it as referring to the cleaving of the soul out of love and great affection, 

as David wrote (Tehilim 63:9) “My soul cleaved to and followed You”

Why did Chazal feel compelled to take this verse so far away from its apparent meaning, that we strive to cleave to God emotionally and spiritually?

Torah Temimah answers essentially that clinging to God in a deep spiritual way cannot be the peshat here, because it is too difficult for a layperson to accomplish.  He writes,

וא”א לומר כזה לכל המון העם …

אלא ודאי מכוין לדבק ממש

ודבק שאפשר לכל אדם

It would not be possible to say this [that is, spiritually cleaving to God] to the masses … 

rather, it certainly means to literally cleave, 

in a manner that is possible for all people to achieve.

Chazal are forced to understand this mitzvah as cleaving to the rabbis because it would be unrealistic for the Torah to expect the masses to sincerely and deeply cleave to God.  The Torah would never put so much weight on a relationship with God that the majority of people could never reach.

While there is much truth in Torah Temimah’s comment here about the human experience and the ways in which we have truly meaningful religious experiences, I believe that, even as simple people, we can move toward achieving closeness with God directly in a spiritual way.

In Al Hateshuvah, Rav Soloveitchik presents an apparent contradiction in the words of Rambam.

כשהוא מדבר במציאות אלוקים,

שהיא מצוות עשה ראשונה,

הוא אומר בספר המצוות שנצטוינו ׳להאמין באלוקות.״

“When he speaks about the existence of God,

which is the first positive Mitzva, 

Maimonides says in (the standard translation of) Sefer Hamitzvot that we are obligated ‘to believe in God.’”

ואילו בהלכות יסודי-התורה שבמשנה תורה

משתמש הרמב״ם לא במלה ״להאמין״ אלא במלה ״לידע.״

However, in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah in the Mishneh Torah,

Rambam doesn’t use the term “to believe,” but rather, “to know.”

Rav Soloveitchik suggests that each of these terms reflects a different experience with God.  The first is belief. Though Rav Soloveitchik does not unpack what this expression means, it seems that in his opinion, “to believe” refers to an experience of faith that God exists. A moment of profound inspiration, for instance, might cause one to “believe” in God.

Knowledge goes further.  Rav Soloveitchik maintains that knowledge cannot refer to an intellectual understanding of God, for that would be impossible.  As the Sages say, God is an all-consuming fire. Try as we might, humans are too frail to actually comprehend God. Rather,

פירושו של ״לידע״ הוא לדעתי,

כי אמונתנו במציאות ה׳ תיעשה להכרה תמידית

The meaning of “to know,” in my opinion,

is that our belief in the existence of God becomes constant.

Belief happens sporadically, in the wake on acute experiences.  Knowledge is ever-present. It’s a continuous awareness that God exists.

Rav Soloveitchik takes this even further.  More than a constant recognition of God in the world, knowledge of God means recognizing God’s involvement in one’s individual life.  For me to know God is to recognize that everything that I have is granted to me directly by God Who is consistently involved in my life.  And a person who recognizes all the good things that God has done for him can have but one response:

הוא מוכרח, כביכול, לחבק את הקב״ה

One is forced, as it were, to embrace God.

Seeing the goodness God grants to me brings me closer to God out of an immense feeling of thankfulness.

According to Chazal, I draw near to God and develop my relationship with Him by surrounding myself with rabbis and scholars.  But perhaps this is not the exclusive modality of deveikut.  The experience of reflecting on everything that one has and on its Source also draws one nearer to the Divine.

May we be all successful developing this attitude of gratitude and ultimately moving closer to God.

Rabbi Jared Anstandig (SBM 2011) is the Orthodox Rabbi at the University of Michigan Hillel and rabbi of the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan.

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