Still haven’t found what you’re looking for? Neither has anyone from the band U2, but it shouldn’t stop us from seeking. After all, it’s called fishing, not catching. The orientation in the spiritual realm is process rather than outcome. There is value simply in looking for transcendence. Perhaps the activity of searching for higher ground will bring us closer by virtue of the exploration, the rooting out and naming of longings and yearnings.
A modern Israeli commentary suggests that this verse from Isaiah was a signal to those who were in exile and near its end to call out to God to achieve redmeption; according to prophetic tradition the exiles had reached a time to seek out God. The opening verses of this chapter in Isaiah read: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters...Give ear and come to me, hear Me that your soul may live…” The senses are amplified in these verses. The chapter is filled with a sense of movement, of aspiration turned heavenward. The mouth and ears are instruments we use to find that which we seek, particularly when we recognize how barren our spiritual lives may be.
Isaiah implies that one must search for God in places where the divine spirit exists naturally. We cannot surround ourselves exclusively with materialistic desires and acquisitions and expect that God will materialize. We must actively put ourselves in places that nourish the heart, mind and spirit. But sometimes we find God in the oddest of places, where we least expect to be touched, moved and inspired, shifting our understanding of seeking to looking where we believe God may be least present. The Kotzker Rebbe famously asked where God is found and responded that God is found in the place where we let God in. We hold the keys.
Others understand that God is not situated in a particular place but that our relationship can be located anywhere God is sought after in this world. In the search would be the finding, following another verse from Deuteronomy: “And if from there you seek the Lord, your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul” (4:29). Use all that you have in the process of seeking, and it will yield surprising results.
I found a lovely Hasidic tale in a book my friend Saul gave me. It’s an anthology of Hasidic teachings, fable sand legends that his grandfather, the scholar Louis Newman collected and organized topically. Here’s the Torah of seeking according to the Apelier Rebbe.
“The Apelier Rabbi made the following comment on the verse (I Chronicles 16:10): ‘Let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord:’ ‘When one seeks a certain object, he feels no gladness in his heart until his quest is successful. But when one seeks after the Lord, the very act of seeking Him rejoices the heart of the seeker,’” [Siach Sarfei Kodesh v.48].
We lose things all the time. So it’s frustrating when we have trouble finding them. Our search is only successful if there is an actual result. But when it comes to God, we aren’t looking for a particular “object” so the seeking itself can be filled with joy.
Rabbi Newman (1893-1972), in his introduction, shares the impetus for many of these teachings about Hasidic traditions. “Their interest in joy, laughter, gaiety, the song, the dance and the cup of cheer may have been a compensation for the gloom and rigor of much of life as they witnessed it round about; their insistence upon enthusiasm and enkindlement in worship, and upon sincerity in conduct and observance may have been a foil for the tepid and formalistic traits of much Jewish observance in their neighborhood…”
When it comes to spirituality, how is your neighborhood? Today, many spiritual seekers need not travel far to achieve the enlightenment within. And yet, even so, many Jews believe that Judaism is not particularly spiritual and seek value frameworks in other faiths or no faith because there is not enough God talk. We have more resources, texts and places to study Judaism than ever before but spiritual wisdom is largely assumed to exist outside of conventional Jewish organizational life.
When we seek, we may not need to find, but let’s not assume that we cannot find the religious solace and challenge with our own faith transition. There is pleasure in the search.