In 1955, when Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel published his important book on depth theology, he startled his readership with a striking title: God in Search of Man. It would appear that the opposite ought to be the case. It is humankind that should be searching for meaning in life, for evidence of the divine, for ultimate guidance – not the reverse. But Heschel was a product of the Hasidic tradition that spawned him. A descendant of the influential Apter dynasty, Heschel was surely familiar with the story ascribed to Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezerich (d. 1772), and the successor of the Ba’al Shem Tov.
One day, while walking in the street with members of his family, Reb Dov Baer encountered a little girl crying bitterly under a tree. He asked her why she was crying and she took a deep breath and explained. “Me and my friends were playing Hide-and-Seek. When it came to my turn, I hid but my friends are not coming to find me!” When he heard this sad story, tears began to flow from the yes of the Maggid. Amazed at what they thought was excessive empathy, his relatives asked the Maggid: “What did the master see that made him cry over a children’s game and what in the girl’s answer trigger the tears?” The Maggid sighed and said: “Sadly, we do not always listen to what the heart senses. From the answer of this little girl I am reminded of the grief of God’s divine presence, as it were. When the Torah describes God as “hiding His face” (Deuteronomy 31:18) it is as if God is saying ‘I am hiding but no one is looking for me.’ They have abandoned Me and forget that I am merely hiding. For this I cry.”
Heschel takes this story further. While it is tragic that human beings have largely given up on looking for God, God has not remained passive. God now seeks those who have found Him absent. As Heschel puts it: “God’s dream is not to be alone [but] to have mankind as a partner in the drama of continuous creation” (Who Is Man? p. 118). “[Man] is not an innocent bystander in the cosmic drama. There is in us more kinship with the divine than we are able to believe…Every soul is indispensable to Him. Man is needed, he is a need of God.” (The Insecurity of Freedom, p. 160).
There is no greater inducement to penitence than knowing that our lives matter and while we may have set aside the search for God, God is seeking each and every one of us.