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The Heart in the Sea

Awash in questions, drowning in doubt, we're still cherished


It’s a game so many of us play: A good Shemoneh Esreh means we’re doing okay. Lashon hara slips out, and suddenly we plunge down in the Divine approval ratings. A tragedy occurs, and we cower from what we perceive as Hashem’s displeasure.

It’s like we’re constantly enduring the turbulence of shanah rishonah, unsure of how deeply we’re loved — and whether or not we’ve earned or deserve that love. It’s depleting and leaves us confused.

And now, Rosh Hashanah is over. We might have had lofty thoughts when we heard the shofar, but now we’re busy with Vidui, reciting a litany of our faults and wrongdoings. As we enter a new year, so desperately in need of Hashem’s rachamim and yet so conscious of our shortcomings, we can feel helpless. Are we really free to find Hashem? And if so, how do we go about it?

Finding Hashem is the agenda of Yom Kippur. It’s also the focus in the story of Yonah, which we read at Minchah. Let’s follow his journey and find its reflection in our own lives.

Yonah received a prophecy, telling him to go to Ninveh and bid the people to repent. In an act of mesirus nefesh — he wanted to save Klal Yisrael from a negative comparison with the people of Ninveh, who were spiritually malleable and ready to do teshuvah — he fled from Hashem.

His destination — deep into the ocean — was far from random. The Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer (chapter 10) explains Yonah’s rationale: “ ‘I will flee to a place absent of [Hashem’s] kavod. About the Heavens it says, “Al hashamyim kevodo — His glory is in the Heavens.” On the earth is written: “All the earth is filled with His glory.” I will flee to a place where it doesn’t say his kavod is there.’ Yonah went to the port of Jaffa…”

Yonah sought a place where Hashem’s glory couldn’t be found and went to the ocean.


Beyond the Shoreline

Viewing the sea from our safe vantage on the shore, we feel tranquility and peace. But to venture into the ocean is to enter a realm of raw and terrifying power. No person can survive alone in the ocean — he may cling to a life raft and rely on the food and water he has transported from the land, but without these buffers, he’d perish. The ocean harbors crashing waves, the mysteries of the deep, a tsunami of fury and violence that would destroy the world had Hashem not placed the borders of the land to contain the waters.

On a psychological level, the ocean gives an experience of total groundlessness and disorientation — without navigational instruments, all sense of direction is lost. Deep in the ocean, the mist of void swallows clarity, meaning, and the preciousness of life. A man encounters the ocean, and he is overcome by a tumultuous sea of questioning. Rootedness is washed away. Center has been lost. Deep within the oceans remains the faintest taste the tohu v’vohu of creation — that bewildering desolation that was the world before Hashem separated Heaven from earth and created dry land.

It was to this dark chaos that Yonah fled: the only place he was sure was absent of Hashem.

And yet, it was there that all was transformed.


Yonah’s Prayer

And he said: In my trouble I called out to Hashem, and He answered me, from the belly of she’ul (Gehinnom) you heard my voice. You cast me into the depths; in the heart of the sea… I thought I was driven away from your sight; would I ever look again on Heichal Kodshecha? The waters closed in over me, the deep engulfed me. Weeds twined around my head. I sank to the base of the mountains… when my life ebbed, I called to Hashem; my prayer came before You, into Heichal Kodshecha. (Yonah 2:3-8)

Yonah’s tefillah is surely one of the most moving and astounding prayers of all time. After turning his back on direct revelation, running away from Hashem, Yonah falls to a nadir that is both physical and spiritual at once — and utters these powerful words.

The Vilna Gaon, in his peirush on Yonah, highlights the words “I sank to the base of the mountains.” He explains that Yonah experienced the primeval tohu v’vohu. There in the she’ul — a word for Gehinnom that is related to the word sh’eilah, question — everything was uncertain, and his entire being became a question.

The tohu v’vohu of Bereishis was a chaos, a desolation so profound that, Rashi says, it brought people to existential question. Banished to that place of formlessness, before the world took on order and beauty and the possibility of life, the Heichal Kodshecha had never seemed further away. Yonah was drowning in distance.

Was there any hope? Could Yonah find his way back?


Weeping Waters

To understand this, we have to look more carefully at the events of the second day of creation.

On the very first day of creation, when Hashem made light and dark, we’re told that the world was in a state of tohu v’vohu — a desolation and emptiness so great that an onlooker would question in bewilderment. On the second day, Hashem separated the upper waters from the lower waters and created the Heavens (it was only on the third day that land was formed and the waters received their borders). The lower waters, newly distanced from the Creator, are called mayim bochim, crying waters, and they became the sheer magnificence and terror of the salty oceans.

What a contrast. The oceans: vast swaths of desolation, the mystery of the deep, the place where “Hashem’s glory can’t be discerned.” And the upper waters, which bring down rain and dew and seem to be filled with goodness. While the upper waters want nothing more than to sing shirah, the lower waters are a place where Hashem’s goodness is concealed.

Sod Yesharim (Yom Kippur 37) explains a mind-blowing principle. When we look at the world through our limited, human perspective, there are places and times and events that distance us from Hashem. There are places He can’t be felt. Times He feels hidden. There are circumstances in which we feel unworthy of ever coming close — and feel far, far away.

Pure spiritual reality, of course, is different. Hashem is everywhere. He is utterly and entirely good. There is no place He cannot be found. We might feel distant, but that’s in the realm of the subjective: In the objective reality, He is always close.

The same is true of the upper and lower waters. The lower waters may cry at their distance from the Divine, but from a spiritual perspective, there’s no distance at all. The lower waters might be tohu v’vohu. The ocean might hold darkness and questions and despair — the place we run to when we don’t know how to handle clarity. But there’s no place that’s absent of Hashem’s glory. The upper waters and lower waters are one — and they both sing shirah to Hashem.


A Heichal Everywhere

This was the discovery Yonah made in the depths of the ocean. Yonah descended to the she’ul, the place where the only thing he could experience was questions. The questions that can’t be answered, questions that are a cry of pain at the distance, questions that freeze our bones, turn our hearts to stone, and make us turn our faces away from Hashem. And every Yom Kippur, Yonah teaches us that even in that place we can find Hashem.

From the depths, he raised his voice in connection. In his tefillah, he refers to the “heart of the sea.” This implies that even the depths of the ocean have a heart. A center. Even in the desolation of absence, there’s a place where we can find and be found. Even in the tempest, there can be a place of Heichal Kodshecha.

In this place, we don’t have to be bound by our lack of understanding. We don’t even need to be bound by our pain. We have a sudden double vision: that distance is only the result of human myopia. From a spiritual perspective, from the viewpoint of truth, there is no distance. Our sins and rebellion and apathy don’t ever make Him love us less.

“Ahavti eschem — I love you,” says Hashem (Malachi 1:2). The prophet Michah asks the natural question: Why, how, in what way do we deserve that love? And there is no rational or logical reason given — just as there is no rational reason why we love our children.

Hashem’s love for us transcends reason. The aveiros, the times we get lost, the weariness and suspicion and sorrow… Hashem is there, too. Ahavti eschem carries a beautiful simplicity — and the liberty that we seek. We don’t need to calculate zechuyos. We don’t need to prove anything. We don’t need to subscribe to the mindset in which we’re always calculating whether or not we’re about to fall prey to Divine anger, chas v’shalom. We can experience incredible freedom simply by knowing that nothing — nothing at all — stops Hashem loving us.


The Mikveh of Yom Kippur

“Mikveh Yisrael Hashem.” Hashem is the mikveh of Klal Yisrael. Entering into Yom Kippur is like immersing in a mikveh: a place that purifies us, releases us from everything that holds us back, and invigorates our sense of life.

Sod Yesharim explains that when we enter the purifying waters of Yom Kippur, we can, for a lofty 25 hours — and perhaps longer — adopt that special spiritual vision. “He purifies himself with the understanding that there is no real distance from Hashem at all… He might have felt it because of his failures and sins, but on a deeper level, he was always with Hashem.”

Can we really change? On Yom Kippur, the question fades. Because on Yom Kippur, we find a deeper level of connection with Hashem. We can find Him from within the failure. We can be awash in questions, drowning in doubt, in the storm of a battered and burning spirit — but Yom Kippur shows us that there is a “heart in the sea.” Even there one can find the Heichal Kodshecha.

Yonah teaches us that it’s precisely from this place we can call out and be found. Turning back to the tohu v’vohu of Bereishis, the pasuk continues: “And the land was tohu v’vohu, and there was darkness on the face of the deep, and the spirit of Hashem hovered over the waters.”

What was this spirit? Chazal tell us this is the spirit of Mashiach. The redemption — national and personal — is found exactly in that place where a tsunami of confusion and despair rage. For it is in that place that we can open ourselves up to an entirely new level of relationship. One that’s not based on logic or worthiness or the limitations of what I can understand. It’s the place that teaches me that when everything is lost, Hashem is not lost to me, for He is holding me in the midst of the sea.


The Freedom of Yovel

Yom Kippur is the day when Yovel, the ultimate culmination of seven shemittah cycles is declared. There’s a reason for this — Yom Kippur is freedom for the soul, and Yovel is freedom of the body (Maharal, Nesiv Hateshuvah). Slavery ceases, land returns to its rightful owner. The world returns to center, all is returned to its place.

Every shemittah, this spiritual movement takes place in microcosm — just as it does each Shabbos, when the laws of techum Shabbos dictate “A man should not go out from his place.” This isn’t a restriction. It’s a restoration.

What is our rightful place? Our place is in Hashem’s arms, savoring His love. Despite the sins, and despite the distance, despite the waves of meaninglessness and desolation and failure that crash and break and threaten to drag us out to sea.

Does that mean that we’re not accountable for our deeds? Far from it.

We’ve just been through a Rosh Hashanah. We’ve affirmed the fact that we are given free choice and that all choice has consequences. If there were no reward and punishment, our lives would be meaningless, our actions, futile. We’ve resolved to take steps forward in our avodas Hashem. We’ve been through Selichos and say Vidui, cleansing ourselves of everything that holds us back from a relationship with Hashem.

But after the high of Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah bring us down to earth with a bump. What of the reality? What of the messiness inside?

The answer can be found in Vidui itself. As we recount our sins, our shame, our failures, we beat our chests. And this drives home a subtle but profound message. Yes, we have done wrong. Yes, we must recompense. Yes, we need to contemplate what led us to failure and come up with concrete steps that will lead us to a better place.

But the distance that has been wrought, the pain of separation from Hashem — all of this exists only in our hearts, in our subjective reality. On an objective level — from the point of view of the head — there was never any distance at all.

This is the freedom of Yom Kippur. The freedom to know that whatever I do, I don’t need to earn Hashem’s love, for it is always present, just as my heart continues to beat. The feelings of distance I torture myself with are subjective, for the objective reality is that Hashem’s love transcends any human calculations, the same way a mother might be torn to pieces by her child’s actions but will still give up her life to save him.

On Yom Kippur — and on Yovel — we gain freedom. We’re liberated from thinking in terms of whether or not we deserve something. Because to Hashem, there’s no difference between the lower waters and the upper waters. They are all one. There’s no concealment.

It’s only we who feel concealment, and that’s because we’re in the mirage of this logical world. But on Yom Kippur we’re free to transcend that space and place, and become attuned to the deeper truth, the truth of the mikveh. That there is no such thing as distance. The truth that even if we try to run away, we’re always running toward; even in the darkest places of failure, we’re still cradled by Hashem.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 759)

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