Tag Archives: The Lonely Man of Faith

Burning the Plow

So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him.

1 Kings 19:19-21 (ESV)

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik concludes his classic book The Lonely Man of Faith with a comparison of Elisha and Elijah as archetypal figures representing the “two Adams” or two different types of men of faith: material and spiritual man. I recently suggested that what makes the man of faith lonely isn’t just the inability to adequately connect to God, but the difficulty in developing a true relationship between the spiritual and material persons that “live” inside each of us.

How do we resolve this conflict, or is it unresolvable? I’m inclined to believe the latter, since Rabbi Soloveitchik introduced his book thus:

I have no problem-solving thoughts. I do not intend to suggest a new method of remedying the human situation which I am about to describe; neither do I believe that it can be remedied at all. The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses.

-Soloveitchick from the Foreword of his book

So if there are no “problem-solving thoughts” and no “new method of remedying the human situation” of the man (or woman) of faith, then why continue to belabor the point? Faith will always isolate us from God, from society, from each other, and even from our own personalities. But Soloveitchick did not end his book on a note of despair or futility.

Elisha was a typical representative of the majestic community. He was the son of a prosperous farmer, a man of property, whose interests were centered around this-worldly, material goods such as crops, livestock, and market prices. His objective was economic success, his aspiration – material wealth. The Bible portrays him as efficient, capable, and practical, remindful of a modern business executive. When Elijah met him, we are told, he was supervising the work done by the slaves. He was with the twelfth yoke in order not to lose sight of the slave-laborers. What did this man of majesty have in common with Elijah, the solitary covenantal prophet, the champion of God, the adversary of kings, who walked as a stranger through the bustling cities of Shomron, past royal pomp and grandeur, negating the worth of all goods to which his contemporaries were committed, reproaching the sinners, preaching the law of God and portending His wrath?

Yet unexpectedly, the call came through to this unimaginative, self-centered farmer. Suddenly the mantel of Elijah was cast upon him. While he was engaged in the most ordinary, everyday activity, in tilling the soil, he encountered God and felt the transforming touch of God’s hand. The strangest metamorphosis occurred. Within seconds, the old Elisha disappeared and a new Elisha emerged. Majestic man was replaced by covenantal man.

This isn’t really what I was looking for. Elijah represented the covenantal man, the man of God, while Elisha possessed the role of majestic, material man, in command of his environment, aware of God but not consumed by Him. The answer to the dilemma of how to connect spiritual and material man seems to be to convert one to the other. Elisha effectively becomes Elijah, and one man is substituted for the other rather than resolving the conflicts and distance between the two which would have allowed them to co-exist.

Interestingly enough, this wouldn’t be the last time such a conflict is described in the Bible and such a resolution is attempted.

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” –Luke 9:59-62 (ESV)

The transactions between Jesus and those he called to be his disciples seem to be functionally similar to the interaction between Elijah and Elisha. Jesus, the “ultimate covenental man” encounters various “material men” in the process of performing their usual routines and commands them to follow him. Those who hesitate or who desire to fulfill their material obligations first, he says are unfit for the Kingdom of God.

The response of material man to spiritual man it seems, must be immediate or it does not work at all. So what did Elisha do according to Soloveitchik?

He slew the oxen and fed the meat to the slaves who, half-starved, tilled the soil for him and whom he, until that meeting with Elijah, had treated with contempt. Moreover, covenantal man renounced his family relationships. He bade farewell to father and mother and departed from their home for good.

The level of commitment called for both by Elijah and by Jesus seems abrupt and absolute and anything less is considered a failure in terms of entering the Kingdom of God. But that isn’t the end of the story.

Elisha’s withdrawal from majesty was not final. He followed the dialectical course of all our prophets. Later, when he achieved the pinnacle of faith and arrived at the outer boundaries of human commitment, he came back to society as a participant in state affairs, as an adviser of kings and a teacher of the majestic community. God ordered him to return to the people, to offer them a share in the covenantal drama and to involve them in the great and solemn colloquy.

I’m not satisfied. The book ends with Elisha lonely but not despairing, discovering triumph in defeat, hope in failure, and sheltering the Word of God in his bones like an all-consuming fire burning in his heart. In his loneliness, Elisha discovers a God who resides in the recesses of transcendental solitude.

But is that all there is?

None of us bear the mantle of prophet and holy man in the way of Elijah and Elisha, but we see that a similar process occurs when Jesus calls each of us into discipleship. We are all called to leave our former life, to metaphorically burn our plow and slaughter our oxen in order to feed the poor and enslaved, and then to follow the Master on a completely new course of life, interacting with the material world as a messenger for the spiritual world. Is that what’s supposed to happen?

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. –John 17:11-14 (ESV)

We aren’t taken out of the world to become completely one with the spiritual realm. There’s an interactivity between who we are as spiritual people and the role we play in the material world around us. We cannot serve the purpose God created us for if we merely retreat into our spiritual reality and ignore the majestic and material environment where we happen to live.

Soloveitchik is right. There is no cure for the loneliness of a man of faith but that’s to be expected. We don’t belong here, none of us. We are the proverbial strangers in a strange land, pilgrims in a broken world, carrying a message from the Master to everyone else not to give up hope. It’s a hope that no political figure or celebrity can offer because they are wholly one with the material and are limited by the boundaries of their devotion to only the physical. The hope we offer as messengers of our Master is the love of God and the promise of redemption, not only of created world, but of our very beings.

The loneliness of the man of spirit will end, but not yet.

The One Side of the Coin

As a matter of fact, at the level of his cosmic confrontation with God, man is faced with an exasperating paradox. On the one hand, he beholds God in every nook and corner of creation, in the flowering plant, in the rushing of the tide, and in the movement of his own muscle, as if God were at hand, close to and beside man, engaging him in a friendly dialogue. And yet the very moment man turns his face to God, he finds Him remote, un-approachable, enveloped in transcendence and mystery. Did not Isaiah behold God, exalted and enthroned above creation, and at the same time, the train of his skirts filling the Temple, the great universe, from the flying nebulae to one’s most intimate heartbeat? Did not the angels sing holy, holy, holy, transcendent, transcendent, transcendent, yet He is the Lord of hosts, who resides in every infinitesimal particle of creation and the whole universe is replete with His glory?

-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
from Chapter VI of his book
The Lonely Man of Faith

Fusing the existential acuity of Kierkegaard with the wisdom of the Old Testament, Boston Orthodox rabbi Soloveitchik has produced a timeless spiritual guide for men and women of all religions. In this soaring, eloquent essay, first published in Tradition magazine in 1965, “The Rav,” as he is known to his followers worldwide, investigates the essential aloneness of the person of faith, whom he deems a misfit in our narcissistic, technologically oriented, utilitarian society. Using the story of Adam and Eve as a springboard, Soloveitchik explains prayer as “the harbinger of moral reformation” and probes the despair and exasperation of individuals who seek to redeem existence through direct knowledge of a God who seems remote and unapproachable. Although the faithful may become members of a “convenantal community,” their true home, he writes, is “the abode of loneliness” as they shuttle between the transcendent and the mundane. Sudden shafts of illumination confront the reader at every turn in this inspirational personal testament.

-from Publishers Weekly, 1992

Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the two descriptions of the creation of man from the first two chapters of Genesis to illustrate the two natures of humanity: the physical nature and the spiritual nature. I’m being very simplistic in this explanation, but as I read Soloveitchik, the basic conflict of any person of faith is in the dichotomy of the natural and supernatural human being. The first seeks significance and even triumph in domination over the created world, while the second sees transcendence beyond the world, to peek, as it were, under the hood, and to touch the very garment of the Creator.

Christianity’s response to this dilemma is to completely separate the physical and the spiritual, giving the latter ascendance and (ideally) priority over the former (it doesn’t often work out this way). This creates a barrier between the “two Adams” who, living in one flesh, travel in two apparently opposite directions. However, maybe Judaism has another approach:

Yula is an enlightened being. He spends his life in the wilderness, far from humanity, focusing his mind on the higher realms.

Harriet Goldberg is a schoolteacher. She spends her life cultivating small minds, hoping to give them a sense of wonder for the world they live in.

Who is closer to G-d?

That depends. Where is G-d?

If G‑d emanated a world spontaneously, dispassionately—just as the sun provides us light and warmth without any investment on its part—then G-d is found beyond this world, and Yula is closer.

But if G-d created a world deliberately, because that is what He desires and cares for, and so He invested Himself within that creation, so that His very essence and being can be found here, then Harriet is closer.

You choose.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“How to be Spiritual”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Then again, maybe not. But do we really have to make a choice between Yula and Harriet? Why must one be closer to God than the other? Isn’t there room in God’s throne room or His heart for both?

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch wrote:

When my grandmother, the Rebbetzin Rivkah, was eighteen years old she fell ill and the doctor ordered that she eat immediately upon waking. But grandmother, who did not wish to eat before prayer, would pray at an early hour and only afterwards eat her breakfast.

When her father-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, heard of this, he said to her: “A Jew must be healthy and strong. Concerning the precepts of the Torah it is written “live in them”- one is to infuse life into the mitzvos; and in order to infuse life into the mitzvos, one must be fit and joyful.”

Concluded Rabbi Menachem Mendel: “Better to eat in order to pray, than to pray in order to eat.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Commentary on Torah Portion Acharei
Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Here we see that the physical is ascendant over the spiritual, but only so the former can serve the latter’s purpose. However, Rabbi Freeman has another way of looking at the human condition:

There are crossroads where you choose not only your future, but your past as well.

Take one path, and your past becomes but a silly, useless dream that might as well never have happened.

Take another road, and your past becomes a magnificent frame for a glorious moment of life. The moment now. The moment for which your soul was formed.

—Padah B’shalom, 5738

Future and past, humanity and Divinity, secular and spiritual, each human being, perhaps even those who refuse to acknowledge the possibility of God, stands at the center of a room with two doors, each leading into two directions that are impossible to fuse into a single path.

But each of us is only a single being. While Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the two different descriptions of the creation of Adam to illustrate these separate paths, in fact, Adam was one man who was created into two worlds. He was commanded to dominate and rule over a physical Creation, but he was also directed to transcendently guard Creation for the sake of Heaven. When man fell, it did not destroy the “second Adam,” it just made it harder for the two paths to unite into a single journey.

Since the day when Adam and Eve were rejected by Eden, we have been trying to walk both east and west in search of God. Where might He be found; in the Heavens above, or in the earth below?

Ironically, we find Him at once in both, which is just plain confusing to most people. To solve the confusion, some men turn only to Heaven while others choose to observe Him only in how He manifests in nature. One extreme imprisons God in the realm of spirituality while the other traps Him on earth or worse, leads man to worship only the observable.

At the end of the book of Exodus, God dwelt among His people in the “form” of the Shekhinah, which indeed seemed to possess a heaviness and “substance” within the material world. But God did not cease to exist as the infinite and unknowable Ein Sof in His highest Heavens.

Is God found in the human heart and in the unattainable mystic domains beyond man’s ability to conceive? Most certainly. But where does that leave man? How can we find God when He exists in two impossibly incompatible realms?

I don’t know. I only know that the reason both “Adams” are lonely is not just because of their great difficulty in attaching to God, but because of the near impossibility in talking to each other. Two essences are trapped in one flesh, the first being completely at home there and the second being a complete foreigner.

But we can’t live, one without the other. The material man without the spiritual man, is just a machine who perceives only the world around him and is unable, by default, to understand anything else. God is lost to him or man himself becomes his own “god.” The spiritual man without the material man is at best, indifferent to the physical world and obsessed with ephemeral mysticism. At worst, he is just plain dead. In this extreme, if we refuse to eat and drink in order to “better” pray to God, we starve our bodies and deny our lives.

But God made us as both and for the length of our earthly existence, this is who we are. Man struggles to make his peace with God but in reality, we cannot be at peace with our Creator until we find peace within ourselves. The Adams must learn to live with each other and to appreciate and embrace both sets of priorities, not as incompatible opposites, but as two fused sides to a single coin.

God cannot be anything but the unique and radical One. We human beings, created in His image, are two, but as two we are incomplete. We must also be One, as He is One. That is the destination to which we are striving all our lives to attain.

Perhaps that’s the answer to how we must be holy as God is holy and how we must be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. We must be One, as God is One.

In the end, the coin will only have one side.


The Chaotic Serene Garden

I have no problem-solving thoughts. I do not intend to suggest a new method of remedying the human situation which I am about to describe; neither do I believe that it can be remedied at all. The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses. It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to convert the passional, antinomic faith-experience into a eudaemonic, harmonious one, while the Biblical knights of faith lived heroically with this very tragic and paradoxical experience.

All I want is to follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old, who said, “I will speak that I may find relief”; for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word, and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing.

-Joseph B. Soloveitchik
from the Foreword of his book
The Lonely Man of Faith

In many ways, reading the first part of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s book is like looking in a mirror. Well, not exactly. He was born over half a century before I was and after all, I’m not Jewish, let alone a Rabbi. Yet everything he says about his own experience and the experience of a man of faith completely reflects my own thoughts, feelings, and uneasy journey with God.

I’ve talked before about trying to find a storyteller who speaks in metaphors I can understand, and so far Rabbi Soloveitchik is one of those storytellers. I don’t think I’ll ever know why men like Rabbi Tzvi Freeman and even the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory, use “my metaphors” so much more clearly than any Christian author I’ve ever read. It is true that Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk, spoke very well and clearly to some parts of me in his book The Seven Storey Mountain, but that’s something of a rarity.

I’m not going to presume a Jewish soul, and in so many ways, I’m such a Goy (at least according to my Jewish wife), so I really don’t have an answer. But at least as far as my reading up to the end of Chapter 1 is concerned, Rabbi Soloveitchik is speaking in a language that could apply to people of many different faiths, not just to the Jew.

And he’s talking about exactly what I experience.

I have a confession to make. There were times when I thought I was going crazy. There were times when I thought I was just a bad Christian, a person with a bad or weak faith, someone who just didn’t “get” what it was to walk on a path that leads to God. And yet just look at how Rabbi Soloveitchik starts the first chapter of his book:

The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you that impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my own intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and my mother have forsaken me,” ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove. It is a strange, alas, absurd experience engendering sharp, enervating pain as well as stimulating, cathartic feeling. I despair because I am lonely and, hence feel frustrated. On the other hand, I also feel invigorated because this very experience of loneliness presses everything in me into the service of God.

While Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writing style is very different from mine, what he’s actually saying is just what I’ve been trying to say for a long as I have been blogging. Actually, it’s been a lot longer than that, but blogging has provided me with a unique outlet for my frustration and my need to “follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old” and to “speak that I may find relief.”

Joseph Ber Soloeitchik was born over a century ago, was an American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist and modern Jewish philosopher, and a descendant of the Lithuanian Jewish Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. The words of his book first appeared in print over fifty years ago, when I was still in elementary school. He died at the age of 90 nearly twenty years ago and a continent away from where I was living at the moment his soul ascended to God. I don’t imagine that we would have had a lot in common had we ever met.

Except for how we experience our faith.

Maybe I’m not crazy after all. Maybe faith is designed to be lonely, inconsistent, and chaotic, like riding a roller coaster that alternately travels through a beautiful and serene Japanese garden and the fresh hell of a radioactive Chernobyl.

If I can take the beginning words of the Rav’s book at face value, I guess my journey of faith will never get any easier, and my only solace is in “confessing” my “tortured soul” (in my case, as a blogger on the web). And yet, it’s nice to find out that I’m not alone in feeling alone in my faith.

I’ll let you know how the rest of the book turns out.