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Running After You

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Draw me / after you we shall run / the king has brought me into his chambers.

Song of Songs 1:4

“Draw me”—this is the Exodus from Egypt; “after you we shall run”—this is the counting of the Omer; “the king has brought me into his chambers”—this is the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Chassidic teaching

King Solomon’s “Song of Songs,” which our sages have called the holiest book of the Scriptures,[1] describes our relationship with the Almighty via the story of the love between a maiden and her beloved, employing the passions and imagery of physical love as a metaphor for the unique bond between G-d and His people.

In every relationship, there are times when one partner takes the initiative, and times when the other partner plays the active role. In the above quoted verse we see the initiative shift from one partner to the other and back again: the maiden calls on her beloved to “draw me” (his initiative), promises to run after him (hers), and concludes by speaking of how he brings her into his chambers (his). This double shift of initiative is reflected in our sages’ interpretation of this verse as the voice of the maiden Israel recalling her “bridal love”[2] for G-d at the time of the Exodus: “Draw me” refers to how G-d drew us to Him at a time when we, submerged in the paganism of Egypt, were unwilling or unable to seek Him ourselves; “after you we shall run,” speaks of a phase in the relationship—the seven weeks of preparation and self-refinement that followed the Exodus—in which we were the active suitors; and finally, “the king has brought me into his chambers” again refers to a time when we were the passive recipients of a divine initiative—G-d’s revelation of His essence to man at Mount Sinai.

The kabbalists call these countercurrents in our relationship with G-d “arousal from above” and “arousal from below,” and explain how, as is the case in human relationships, both are necessary to achieve an ideal union. It is important that we “run after you”—that our lives be driven by the quest to transcend the mundane and reach for the divine. But it is also important that we recognize those times and areas in the relationship in which our own abilities are grossly inadequate, and we can only surrender to the supernal forces that call to our soul.

Before and After

More specifically, there are two forms of “arousal from above”: one that precedes our active quest, and one that follows it. As in the above-quoted verse from Song of Songs, “draw me” is followed by “after you we shall run,” which is followed, in turn, by “the king has brought me into his chambers.”

The first initiative must come from Above. In the words of the Talmud, “a prisoner cannot release himself from prison”:[3] the soul of man, confined to a material body and encumbered by material impulses, requires an “arousal from above” to waken its desire to unite with the Almighty. We experience such “arousals” all the time: remember the last time you were struck with a sudden joy, or fear, or regret, that had no identifiable source or cause? When you were suddenly seized with a resolve to rectify a deficient past and place a new emphasis on your spiritual development? That was G-d drawing you to Him, stirring your soul’s latent love for its Creator.

All too often, these awakenings resound briefly in our consciousness and then dissipate without any real and lasting effect upon our lives. In order for their momentum to carry over into our internal and behavioral selves, they must be reciprocated with “an arousal from below”—with an initiative, on our part, to pursue G-d with every fiber of our being.

On the other hand, however, even the most ambitious of human efforts remains a human effort, defined and confined by the limitations of the human state. So it, too, falls short of achieving the ultimate union between man and G-d. Thus, the first two phases of our relationship with G-d are both inadequate, and for opposite reasons: because the initial “arousal from above” appears without any effort and involvement on our part it is too removed from our reality to be meaningful to us, while our “arousal from below” is too much a part of our reality to truly touch the divine.

Hence the third phase—an “arousal from above” that follows our own efforts to relate to G-d. Because it comes from G-d, it is as potent, as infinite and as true as its source. And because it has been preceded by our efforts, it falls on fertile ground, touching us deeply and permeating our lives.

This also explains a curious discrepancy in the grammatical structure of the verse from Song of Songs. Why does the narrator begin in first person singular (“draw me”), and change, in mid-sentence, to first person plural (“after you we shall run”), only to conclude by reverting to the singular (“the king has brought me into his chambers”)? Because the divinely initiated awakenings touch the “one” in us—the singular essence of our souls—while our own quest for G-d embraces the plurality of feelings, characteristics, traits and faculties that make up the “miniature universe”[4] that is man. In our relationship with G-d, it is important that both these elements be present; that the most basic core of self be touched, but that also the surface of our lives, with its great diversity of drives, wants and levels of consciousness, be permeated with an awareness of G-d and the striving to connect with Him. Only when both the “me” and the “we” of the self are involved can the relationship be both true and real, both absolute and relevant.

Annual Climb

“So said G-d: I remember the kindness of your youth, your bridal love, following me in the wilderness, in an unsown land.”[5] The prophet is speaking of the time that the people of Israel followed G-d out of Egypt into the desert, where they were betrothed to G-d at Mount Sinai.

As we said, the original union between G-d and Israel also included the three phases recounted above: an initiative by the divine groom, the response of the earthly bride, culminating with another “arousal from above,” this second one stimulated by the “arousal from below” that preceded it.

First there was the Exodus, when “the King of all Kings revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.”[6] At that time, the people of Israel were steeped in the idolatry of their Egyptian masters and naked of all meritorious deeds;[7] indeed, the Midrash relates that when G-d split the sea for the people of Israel and drowned the pursuing Egyptians in it, the guardian angel of Egypt complained: “How are they any different from them? These are idol-worshippers, and these are idol-worshippers!”[8] Nevertheless, G-d chose to draw His people to Him in a unilateral act of love.

There then followed seven weeks of intense preparation on the part of Israel to make themselves worthy of G-d’s choice: forty-nine days devoted to the refinement of the forty-nine traits of the human character.[9] This is the phase of the relationship to which the maiden Israel refers when she sings “after you we shall run”—”we,” the plural world of my mortal heart, runs after you, seeks you in every avenue of its diverse and fragmented self. We lag far behind you, perceiving only your shadowy back as we run after you; but we are running, impelling ourselves beyond the corporeal life into which we were born, beyond the conventions of our own nature.

The forty-nine-day run brought us to the foot of Mount Sinai. There “the king brought me into his chambers,” raising our relationship to a height of intimacy and union no humanly-generated love could ever have achieved. But because this divine initiative was preceded by our “arousal from below” it penetrated our wakened souls and permeated every nook and nuance of our ready hearts.

“These days are commemorated and reenacted.”[10] The festivals commanded by the Torah do not merely commemorate the fundamental events of our history, but constitute their annual re-experience. Every Passover, we are again showered with a unilateral outpouring of divine love, as G-d again draws us to Him. This is followed by the forty-nine day sefirah (“count”), in which we again climb the forty-nine rungs of our psyche, refining and elevating our multi-faceted selves in the quest to run after G-d and make ourselves worthy of His embrace. Thus aroused, we are in a position to truly experience the divine revelation of Shavuot, the day on which the King brings us into His innermost chambers and enables us to relate to His most intimate self.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks of Lag B’omer 5711 (1951), Shavuot 5713 (1953), and on other occasions[11]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

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[1]. Talmud, Yadayim 3:5.

[2]. Jeremiah 2:2.

[3]. Talmud, Berachot 5b, et al.

[4]. Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 3.

[5]. Jeremiah, ibid.

[6]. Haggadah.

[7]. Ezekiel 16:7; Rashi, ibid.

[8]. Midrash Tehillim, 15:5.

[9]. There are seven basic attributes of the human heart—chessed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod and malchut (attraction, rejection, synthesis, competitivity, devotion, communicativity and receptiveness)—each of which contains elements of all others; this makes for a total of forty-nine emotions and drives in the character of man.

[10]. Esther 9:28.

[11]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. I, pp. 266-269, et al.

 

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Ani

Just beautiful. I am especially moved by the description of the two initiatives of arousal from above. The first, awakening us to desire God and to make effort to run after God and then a second, when we are united with that which surpasses our human efforts. We are embraced by that which is beyond the embrace of human mind.

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