Where is God? What pathway can I take to the Divine, to become closer to my Creator? How shall I live my life and so justify my existence at this time, in this place? What is the essence of the soul that animates me? What am I meant to accomplish in this world?
These are some of the existential questions explored in the thoughtful and thought-provoking book by Joseph Haddad. A collection of 11 essays compiled over several decades, To Seek His Presence delves into some of the most important and perplexing of spiritual subjects; ones we often gloss over or are mystified by. Haddad opens a door to the beyond, prodding us to examine who we are and why we were placed on this earth.
The first essay examines the short but significant Psalm 150, the last in the Book of Psalms. Noting that all the psalms were set to music, with master musician King David as the overall conductor, Haddad sees this prayer as a “celestial symphony” that praises and proclaims God’s glory throughout the universe.
Delving into existential questions about Judaism
Delving into a bit of Kabbalah, the different instruments employed in the psalm take us through the mystical “four worlds,” from Creation to present times. Following this theme, we turn our attention to the most important of prayers, the Shema, and its accompanying blessings. We touch upon the underlying motif of light and darkness – the Shema is recited both morning and evening – and the dual function of the sun, moon, and stars both as a source of illumination to the world and an eternal, majestic tapestry of God’s awesome power and beauty.
The inclusion of the excerpts from the Book of Exodus in the Shema testifies to God’s active, benevolent interaction with humanity and God’s transcendence; while the Amida prayer that immediately follows, attests to our belief that we mortals can connect to God for any and all of our needs.
Haddad addresses one of the most pressing problems with daily prayer: How do we maintain a sense of passion and avoid the monotony that comes with a repetitive routine?
Some of the novel ideas the author links to the prayers offer insights and a fresh approach to these ancient words, helping invigorate the siddur and approach prayer from a different perspective. The insistence that God truly hears our voice awakens our attention and personalizes these universal prayers.
An excellent section of the book deals with the power and influence of humanity, even to the point that we can confront God – albeit humbly and deferentially – in order to argue our case.
Abraham and Moses are the paradigms for debating the Almighty, with the carefully delineated 13 Divine Attributes serving as the classic text of interactive dialogue.
One of the more difficult subjects in modern Judaism is that of the centrality of the Temple and, in particular, the significance of the korbanot. The author correctly points out that the term “offering” is preferable to the normative definition “sacrifice,” as it relates to the effect which the korbanot have on the giver, rather than on God, the ostensible receiver.
The various objects and rituals employed in the Temple service – the altar, the showbread, the keruvim, the eternal flame, the ark, and its cover – are closely examined, with an eye toward providing relevance to Jewish life in the 2,000-year absence of the Temple.
There is an exposition of the special garments worn by the Temple’s Kohanim, with particular note taken of the breastplate and its urim v’tumim, which provided a direct conduit to receive messages from God.
I found particularly interesting the chapter dedicated to salt – which was a necessary component of all offerings, and is still ritually used today – and the part salt plays not only in the body but also in the spiritual makeup of human beings. Employing wisdom from Sigmund Freud, the Zohar, Kuzari, and Maimonides, Haddad shows how salt relates to the various parts of our psyche – the id, the ego, and the super-ego – as well as to our performance of the mitzvot.
The book devotes several pages to the oft-asked question: Will the korbanot reappear in a restored Temple, or will they be obsolete in a changed world? The author discusses what the messianic age might look like, and where sacrifices might fit into this ideal society. While I won’t divulge the answer, Haddad cites the offerings brought in the Garden of Eden and speculates upon what mode of connecting to God would be viable at the end of days, when most holidays, and perhaps prayer itself, may not be relevant.
I must add that I admire this book’s effort to unlock the secret of the parah aduma, the red heifer that is used to effect a state of purity for those who became spiritually impure. Parah aduma, known as the hok par excellence, is the most inscrutable of the Torah’s 613 commandments.
The author does an admirable job defining tuma (impurity) and tahara, (purity) and relates them to the equally mystifying notion of tehiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead. He connects these to the overall subject of life and death, drawing the conclusion that humanity’s prime purpose in this world is to refine ourselves – soul and body – and utilize every precious moment of our lives to attach ourselves to the Divine and pursue the noblest of life’s objectives.
If you have an appetite for spiritual knowledge, this book is a banquet.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.
To Seek His PresenceBy Joseph HaddadMosaica Press120 pages; $18