I’m trying to sort out a feeling I’m experiencing: I’ve studied about Judaism in Sunday school, was bat mitzvahed and have studied Judaism as a student of comparative religion, but never actually studied Jewish texts. It always seemed like some intellectual pursuit, no different than studying about Buddhism. Now, for the first time, I’m actually studying Jewish texts after being introduced to them on a recent trip to Israel, such as the Chumash. What I’m experiencing is a strange, but nice, feeling of “coming home.” Do you have any comment on this?
It is a universal human experience that when one is away from one’s home, and particularly from the home of one’s youth, one longs to be back there. The Torah teaches that all of our emotions and experiences are this-worldly parallels of higher experiences. If so, what is the message of the longing for one’s home?
The answer is, the neshamah, or soul, is derived from a higher world; its true place, its true home, is that world where it enjoyed indescribable closeness with its Creator. It is sent into this world, immeasurably distant from that place of origin, to reside in the body of a mortal human being. But it never forgets its home; it forever yearns with a most powerful longing to return. The Midrash compares this to a princess forced to marry a simple peasant. Whenever a royal procession marches by, she peers out the window with great longing and homesickness, wanting nothing more than to join them and reconnect with her inborn royalty.
A most fascinating analogy of this concept is migration. Birds and butterflies have a built-in recognition of their place of origin which beckons to them to fly, literally across the world, to return to the very same locale and even the same tree that they were hatched in, in order to father the next generation. Fresh-water salmon come back from the oceans and fight Herculean battles upstream to get back to the same ponds to lay eggs where they were themselves spawned.
The closest place we have to the original home of the souls in this world is within the Torah. In the Kabbalistic writings we find that the souls and the Torah were created together and have the same spiritual roots. Furthermore, all Jewish souls, including those who were not yet born into this world but were destined to be, were present at Mt. Sinai for the presentation of the Ten Commandments and revelation of the Torah. That, in a sense, was the final “birthplace” of the Jewish souls, as they began in heaven and were completed at Sinai, now ready to enter the world and fulfill their missions as Jews.
From that time onward, the Jewish souls are in a state of longing to be in their original home. When a Jew studies Torah, the neshamah can take a deep breath and bask in the enjoyment of “being home.” The neshamah is our true self-within-ourselves, and our emotional feelings will often mirror or reflect its spiritual feelings.
To study “about” Judaism from the outside, especially as a comparative religion, will never provide this feeling. Although it may spark curiosity to seek further, it will never provide the joy the neshamah feels when it is immersed in the other-worldly pleasure of authentic Torah study. Torah is the “mind of G-d” in a sense, a glimpse into the upper spiritual worlds. Only with that type of immersion does the soul feel it has returned to its place. Welcome home!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.