August 07

Entering the Gate of Sadness
by Jay Michaelson
p. 2 of 2

Another way of saying it.

Psalm 150 teaches that kol haneshama tehallel yah. This may mean one of two things. Either it means that "every soul shall praise Yah" or it means that "the whole soul shall praise Yah." Both interpretations have merit. On the one hand, every person has the opportunity to make his or her life an inchoate praise of the One. And on the other: the whole soul; all of it. So there is no part of any soul that does not, as it is and with what we perceive it to be its flaws, praise God.

These are more spiritual words that sound pleasant and inoffensive until their consequences are seriously considered. Every person -- murderers and rapists as well? Personally, I find the mundane at least as difficult to reconcile as the terrible -- co-workers and family members, because they are present in my life, are more challenging than abstract evildoers like Hitler or Stalin, who, thank God, are not. Are all these "difficult people," from the ridiculous to the sublime, to be included in kol haneshama? And what about those parts of myself which throw tantrums, are consumed by anger, and speak hateful words?

To enter the gate of sadness is to begin to glimpse the audacity, even the absurdity, of the spiritual path itself. Yes-- yes-- yes-- Being is What It Is, regardless of how annoying or hateful I find it to be. My ego is not the arbitrator of all that matters in the world. In fact, that supposed arbitrator is precisely that which must be broken for the heart to be allowed to open. All of us believe that the self has needs and wants, and all of us try to advance those wants. But our success in meeting these desires is not equivalent with how much we are praising God.

Sadness is not an expression of the heart to be discarded in favor of those which are better. To believe that everything happens as it must is not to be fatalistic and cowed; it is not to believe everything happens for the best; it is to understand that sadness is part of the unfolding of the God Process. Praise God with it. Even that which is not, apparently, for our best may be turned to an instrument of praise. Not by denying its painfulness, but by deeply seeing this soul, in this body, at this moment, as manifesting the unfolding of the One. The pain is real, and it is God.


"There is nothing so whole as a broken heart," wrote the Kotsker rebbe, who would know. The Jewish path is one of love and tears and fear and doubt. The broken heart is God's heart breaking.

This is a path of love -- love, not edification or ethical refinement; embarrassing, naked, private love. The miracle of God is the miracle of love -- and yet, human and Divine love are not entirely congruent. The Divine love of God is always present, even when it is in eclipse, and even when our souls feel cut off from their Source. But the ability to change is a fundamental aspect of human nature. So we cannot have the confidence in human love that we have with the Divine.

If we take earthly love for granted, it may disappear. If we neglect our loved ones, and do not express our own love in words and actions, they may cease to love us. Likewise, if we smother one another with affection, and do not provide room for independence and growth -- in this case, too, love can vanish.

The Jewish path projects these aspects of human love onto the Divine. Jewish mystics write rapturous love poems to the One, mapping the world of human love onto the Divine -- giving voice to the longing, the consummation, and the longing anew. Yet there is a difference. When we are certain of our human lover's affection, we risk taking him or her for granted. When we are certain of God's love, we begin the journey to da'at, knowledge of Unity.


Hinei el yeshuati, eftach v'lo efchad -- Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not fear. These words from the Book of Psalms are recited as part of the Havdalah service, which separates the holy time of Shabbat from the ordinary time of the rest of the week. Of course, we know that all time is holy, as is all space, but we humans need these boundaries of distinction (kedushah) in order to prepare ourselves to receive it. Even though God is here, now, sometimes you are not.

The darkness is, from our point of view, real.

When we move from a time of sanctuary, abiding in the spaciousness of the shechinah, into a time of necessary constriction into our ego-selves, it is natural to fear. In the Presence, everything is good. In the world conditioned by our yetzer, things require our attention. We are dissatisfied, working to improve things, and thus necessarily thrown into a place of pain and loneliness.

So the liturgy tells us to not be afraid. I read it not as promising that pain will be kept at bay -- King David, the legendary author of the psalms, knew that it will not. Pain will happen. But God will be with you wherever you are, even in the pain.

Sometimes when we are presented with something delightful, anxiety can rise as we contemplate the certainty that it will eventually be taken from us. We worry: will he remain in love with me? How long until my body succumbs to illness? When will my luck run out? And so we cannot enjoy joy; and so we help speed its end by clinging, fearing, worrying, over-analyzing.

If we trust that God is present even in our painful mind-states, that we will be Asaved" from suffering by abiding in mochin d'gadlut, regardless of what comes our way, then we can be free from fear. Come what may, it will always be Now, and I will always be Here.

Hinei means "behold" but also “Here." Here is God, my salvation. And here, and here, and here.

And here.



Top image: Doug Fogelson. Lower image: Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is editor in chief of Zeek.

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