I have a couple of questions which have been bothering me for many long years, since my childhood…. The Jewish nation stood at Har Sinai, and later sinned with the Eigel (golden calf). Is this story in the Torah emphasizing to us that no matter high one’s “spiritual feelings” are, this is not what determines true “closeness” to Hashem? If my assumption is correct, this would mean that a person can have “spiritual feelings” yet not be genuinely close to Hashem, so even if a person seeks ruchniyus (spirituality), he can still feel far from the Creator.
As proof, there was no event that brought a person closer to Hashem than standing at Har Sinai, yet in spite of this, the people were not loyal to Hashem afterwards. It seems, then, that the way to become close to Hashem is not through sensing and enjoying this closeness, for the Jewish people certainly sensed and felt closeness to Hashem at Har Sinai. Rather, the way to become close to Hashem is precisely when one doesn’t feel close to Him!
Furthermore, don’t all the events of the Tanach show us a picture that there were many people felt close to Hashem yet they were still distant from Him? The Avos and Moshe were very close to Hashem, and so were the Jewish people, but from the generation of the desert and onward, we keep seeing a pattern where people were not as close to Hashem. Until the time of Ezra, no one succeeded in influencing the people to change.
So: if closeness to Hashem ultimately does not guarantee that a person will be faithful to the mitzvos, why should I make closeness to Hashem as the goal of my life? Due to all the reasons I gave above, maybe I shouldn’t place all my focus on becoming close to Hashem, and instead, I should focus on changing my ethical and religious behavior, and not more than that. For it is ultimately the end results that determine everything, and this would mean that only those who remain loyal to Hashem are truly close to Hashem – as opposed to having an unclear feeling [of closeness to Hashem], which is anyhow only reached by individuals. And, in addition, it [feeling close to Hashem] doesn’t guarantee that a person will remain loyal to Hashem and keep His mitzvos.
Of all people it is said, “Do not be confident in yourself until the day of your death”. Of Hashem it is said, “Even in His holiest ones He is not confident in.” For as long as a person is on This World he is in a test, from the front and behind, as the Mesillas Yesharim states. Only in the Next World where the evil inclination will be swallowed will one permanently retain his spiritual level, for there will be no possibility then of any spiritual descent.
The avodah (task) of a person is to be loyal to Hashem at all times, whether he feels the Creator or not. In the future, one will feel the Creator constantly. One can have a semblance of this experience on This World, and partially feel the Creator, each person at his own level, to the degree that one has revealed the light of the soul.
Therefore, as long as one is on This World, where one is a soul living within a body, there is a concealment [of the light of the neshamah], it is one’s task to accept the yoke of Heaven upon himself, in the areas of action, emotion, speech, thought, and will. Simultaneously, a person should also penetrate to the light of his neshamah and feel the closeness to Hashem. But one needs both, accepting the yoke of Heaven, along with pleasure [in doing the mitzvos]. It is incomplete when a person does either of the above. One needs both aspects, together, for each of the above aspects by itself is only half of one’s task, which only endangers a person – as you have pointed out partially in your question.