A Real Spirituality

It is said that Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was the first to observe:

"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."

Put differently: we come from and return to a spiritual place. Our physical existence is temporary.

Exactly 103 years ago tonight, coincidentally on both calendars: Hebrew and Gregorian, Kol Nidre night of October 11th, 1913, a young man, on a glidepath toward conversion to Christianity, attended the Orthodox synagogue of Rabbi Markus Petuchowski in Berlin. Franz Rosenzweig intended to experience one last Yom Kippur as a Jew in order to convert to Christianity not from paganism but out of his Judaism. He sought an authentic Judaism, to reject and become a Christian. Something happened that night, something profound and utterly determinative, but never definitively described. It was Rosenzweig's private moment, permanently altering his life, like an earthquake redirecting a river's course. Rosenzweig in short order ranked among the most respected Jewish philosophers of all time.

As Rosenzweig and Teilhard understood, we live simultaneously in spiritual and physical realms. But experiencing our emotions and five senses can be much more real and obvious to us, even leading some to deny the reality of spiritual breakthroughs into our lives. Our self-talk narratives, our explanations to ourselves of the events of our lives and their meaning, are mostly interpretations of physical events.

The physical world provides us with the means for maintaining ourselves biologically. But the spiritual sustains us with meaning. Living requires both. Much of the turn to psychology and psychologists to resolve our mental anguish is actually responding to spiritual rather than psychological issues.

Issues of meaning are spiritual. If we desire a spiritual life, what might we do to attain it? Consider Rosenzweig.

Eugene Rosenstock, a Christian convert from Judaism, close friend and confidante to Rosenzweig, had vehemently been urging his friend's conversion. Obviously Rosenzweig examined his decision from every angle. In other words: in his preparation and intricate examination of his belief system Rosenzweig broadened his openness and perspective. He undoubtledly started comprehending the workings of the spiritual in his life.

We've all been in that place on some subject, whether it's our occupation or a relationship. Constant examination makes us exquisitely sensitive to nuance, like examining something as simple as a leaf for a long period can overwhelm us with its filigreed complexity and orderly beauty. Focus on a single area increases brain sensitivity and consciousness. Functional MRIs even confirm neuron development in the plastic brain. That is the reason Judaism has taken every opportunity to attach our physicality to our spirituality. To live spiritual lives we must constantly think about our lives in spiritual terms. "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."

For example: traditional Jews on getting out of bed recite a series of blessings, called "Nisim b'chol yom," the miracles of the everyday.

As we open our eyes, we thank God we can distinguish between day and night, and for returning sight to the sightless;

We thank God we are free and not slaves, as we decide what to do today;

As we put on garments, we thank God we are clothed and not naked;

As we stand up straight, we thank God we can stand up, and are not bent over;

As we contemplate that we have what we need in our lives to survive, we thank God who provides for our needs;

As we take a step, we thank God for the ability to walk...

For each minor action in our day we remind ourselves of its spiritual connection.

Rabbi Dovid Schochet, a Chabad Rabbi, said in a mailing on August 12th this year, that in 1952 the Lubavicher Rebbe said to him, "In the morning, when you wake up, thank G-d for everything that has been given to you." I have a friend who writes every morning in her gratitude journal. She could be bitter about her fate these last few years, but instead, she pointedly shifts her perspective from misfortune to fortune. Her good fortune she holds up go the light like a crystal, glittering gifts from God.

Thanking God links us to spiritual realities, as Rosenzweig and Teilhard both discovered. It increases our humility, and makes room for another dimension of gratitude in our lives. It locates our lives in a larger story, a cosmic story, a story of grander significance than petty individual existence. If we don't make room, we fill our psyche with nothing but reactions to the physical, and with self-centeredness. All spiritual authorities in any tradition cite humility as essential for a spiritual life. But also, we must portray life's drama within its larger context.

Judaism links all of our actions to the goodness, the beauty, the beneficence inherent in the world. So we say a blessing before and after eating, to emphasize that we alone did not produce the food. The earth sustains us, a gift from God. These are elementary to living spiritually.

But in our modern age of the impersonal, of Hollow Men, line workers and Willy Lomans, relationship rises to pre-eminence in spiritual encounter. The spiritual has become inter-personal. Perhaps this is best illustrated by a well known story of Martin Buber's life.

He had been upstairs in his rooms meditating and praying one morning, fully engaged in deeply religious intensity, when there was a knock at his front door downstairs. He was taken out of his spiritual moment and went down to see who was at the door. It was a young man who had been a student and a friend, and who had come specifically to speak with Buber.

Buber was polite with the young man, even friendly, but was also hoping to soon get back to his meditations. The two spoke for a short time and then the young man left. Buber never saw him again because the young man was killed in battle (or perhaps committed suicide, the story is not entirely clear). Later, Buber learned from a mutual friend that the young man had come to him that day in need of basic affirmation, had come with a need to understand his life and what it was asking of him. Buber had not recognized the young man's need at the time because he had been concerned to get back upstairs to his prayers and meditation. He had been polite and friendly, he says, even cordial, but had not been fully present. He had not been present in the way that one person can be present with another, in such a way that you sense the questions and concerns of the other even before they themselves are aware of what their questions are. "Ever since then," says Buber "I have given up the sacred. Or rather it has given me up. I know now no fullness but each mortal hour's fullness” of presence and mystery. The Mystery, he says, was no longer "out there" for him, but was instead to be found in the present moment with the present person, in the present world.

(Dr. Tom Kerns, North Seattle Community College: http://philosophycourse.info/lecsite/lec-buber.html)

Buber had been involved in praying and meditating, spiritual activities we might say, when he missed that which he came to believe was truly spiritual: the I-Thou relationship. He walked over diamonds to pick up an agate. Liberal Judaism homes in on experience to reveal spirituality within. Commandment, mitzvah, follows. Orthodoxy originates in commandment. For theological skeptics, relationship must preceed, and God will be found in relationship – as Buber did.

Consider Buber's story. He had chosen his spiritual circumstances with intention: morning prayers and contemplation. In response, God presented him with God's image, tselem elohim, a human being. Buber's reaction was to long for what was, to return to his contemplation, to deny the world as it presented itself to him and choose instead to insert his own manufactured reality of study and prayer. By living in his longing, by refusing the moment and yearning to return to the life he had attempted to create rather than life as it presented itself to him in the moment, he lost both, relationship and text.

Here is the second problem with modernity: not only do we deny the spiritual and embrace the physical, but we believe we can construct the world, and thereby remove ourselves from spiritual reality.

You all know this. We do it constantly. Rather than wait patiently in line viewing and valuing the humanity surrounding us and opportunities to do a kindness, we may gaze at our phones and wonder how long we have to wait to get checked out. We kill time, which is like saying "we kill life."

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of Eyes Remade for Wonder, describes this as all of us carrying around pieces of someone else's puzzle. For years Rabbi Kushner carried a set of tefillin with him, and he didn't know why, since he almost never used them. Then he was on a trip, and a man said to him, "My tefillin are worn out. I need to get a new pair." Larry handed the man his set of tefillin saying, "Here, these are yours."

A similar story is of a man some of you may have known, Dr. Jay Barrish, z"l. Jay was standing in a gas station pumping gas when he saw a young man shivering in the cold of winter, also pumping gas into a car. Jay took off his leather coat and gave it to the man. Jay recognized an opportunity for true tzedakah, or perhaps you may say, along with Kushner, he recognized the true owner of the coat.

Tzedakah is not spirituality in and of itself. It supplies an opening for the spiritual. It encounters and contradicts our selfish nature. It creates ties to another image of God, a potential I-Thou in Buber's terms. Tzedakah when freely given demonstrates the interdependence of the world, the "invisible lines of connection" in Kushner's terminology. Our constant piling up mounds of wealth beside life's path distracts us from the path itself: being in the moment with another, the ultimate reward of living. How many of us have ignored those we love to make another deal, to write another paper, to receive another professional plaudit?

When we seek the spiritual self we are presented with constant surprises.

A famous story is told of the great 19th century moral (musar) teacher, Rabbi Israel Salanter,

People had congregated in the synagogue for Kol Nidre. They waited for Rabbi Israel but he did not appear. Since it was getting late, they recited Kol Nidre without him. Then they sent out to look for him, but no one could find him. The crowd was growing panicky; soon the service would be over. Then abruptly he entered, took his accustomed place, drew the tallit over his head and began to pray. Everyone was astonished at his appearance: his coat was rumpled; his hair and beard full of down. After he finished his prayers, he recounted what had happened to him.

On his way to the synagogue for Kol Nidre, he heard a child crying. He went in the house, saw an infant crying in its cradle, a bottle of milk just out of its reach. The mother had prepared the bottle and gone off to the synagogue, expecting her six year old daughter to give the baby its bottle. But the little girl had fallen fast asleep and did not hear the baby crying. Rabbi Israel fed the baby and put it to sleep. When he was ready to leave, the little girl awoke and begged him not to go for she was afraid to be alone. Reluctant to leave small children alone with low-burning candles, he stayed until the mother reutrned from the synaogogue. He rejoiced he had been given the opportunity to do a good deed at a time as sacred as Yom Kippur. His listeners were amazed: How could one miss the Yom Kippur services because of a child's crying? Rabbi Israel scolded them: "Do you not know that even in the case of a double doubt about saving a life in jeopardy, Jews are permitted not only to omit the prayers but even to profane the Sabbath? (Batnitzky, Leora, How Judaism Became a Religion, p. 124.)

The point is the spontaneous, soulful encounter. We pray so that we might be the kind of people who will have encounters with the child and do the right thing, bringing the Shekhinah to the earth.

In order to uncover those sacred moments in mundane activities, Judaism provides opportunity in every moment to unearth the buried divinity in the moment. We do that with the words, "Baruch atah Adonai ... " "Praised are you, God, ... " followed by the reason for our praise. But that reason is as much a question as an answer. The question is like when my wife sits next to me and says, "Did you see that man?" "Did you notice that car?" "What do you think was happening over there?" "Praised are you, God ..." for what? For water from the Ogallah reservoir that we took for granted. For relationship that gives meaning to our very existence but which we must cultivate. My God, I'd love to relive the moments I spent with people and never asked them the right questions. The lady I buried whose daughter told me before her funeral, "Yeah, mom read about 5 books a week." I never asked her what she thought of them; what she loved; why she read so much. What insights I might have gained. What conversation I might have had had I simply not judged her book by its cover: a simple housewife in frumpey clothes I thought, and never went further. Our ancestor, Jacob, got it exactly right when he dreamed of angels ascending and descending a ladder and responded, "God was in this place and I did not know it." But I'd change that, in all humility, to God was in this place and I refused to know it.

All of which brings us to tonight.

God gives us 3 access points to spirituality: the first and most important is loving. If there's someone you have loved; you are related to; you are married to; you parented or you are the child of; and you are at odds, at a distance, cannot make peace: you are forsaking your greatest access point to spirituality. Get past your ego. Get over your hurt. Restore the relationship. They are your greatest access point to the spirit.

In his book, The Four Things that Matter Most about how to say goodbye to those we love, Ira Byock writes, "... being willing to extend forgiveness is the surest way to dissolve old scars. This forgiveness is not about accepting or excusing the abuse. It is not altruism. You may be entirely justified in hating the person who abused you, but hate keeps you chained to the person you despise." (p. 70)

Byock tells many moving stories, but one is about a man whose wife was dying, and he was caring for her although they had not had a good relationship for years. She was nearly comatose. Byock asked what had happened, the man said she had had a series of extramarital affairs that he could not forgive. His counselor gave the man the idea to lie next to her in bed, facing her with her back to him asleep, and to recall when he had loved her years earlier and say, "I love you." In this moving story, by the time she died they had reconciled and renewed the love that gave meaning to their lives.

You see, life after 50 is not a time of decline as we so often imagine, but a time of great spiritual potential for growth, prospectively the most enriching years of our lives. That is going to be the subject of our upcoming series of discussions called Sacred Aging, beginning Thursday, October 27th, for which you may still sign up. But here's what I want to emphasize: After the hunt for a spouse, and choosing a career, and having children, and perhaps another hunt for a spouse, and rising to the highest available rung of whatever careers you've chosen, and every other physical aspiration in life, what remains is the life of the spirit. What gives meaning to your life? What gives your life purpose? How have you lived, and more important, how will you live to suck the marrow out of life's bones until the breathe of life departs? That is the subject of Sacred Aging, and it's truly the only real question of our lives. Why are we here, and what are we going to do about that?

"We are spiritual beings having a human experience," Teilhard said. A woman I know basically locked herself in a room with her mother in a hospice. She refused all visitors the last two weeks of her mother's life. Her mother had never spoken the words, "I love you," but her daughter knew those words were true. At the end of life, mother and daughter slept in the same bed and shared their lives as they had never shared before. These may be deeply meaningful, enriching and enlivening years, if we choose the spiritual path.

Meaning, purpose and spirituality need not wait until the last 2 weeks of breathing. They can begin at any time, by searching for the spiritual in the moment, opening our eyes to the Thou in every encounter, being available to God's presence in the mundane, to seeing things as they have never been seen before, to discovering God's intention for your life as you shed the pretences and ego and simply become the spiritual self you were intended to be.

Rabbi Meshulam Zusya lived in the 18th century, and was one of the most beloved, learned, humble and generous rabbis of his day. When Rabbi Zusya lay dying, the story goes, his students gathered around. They were astonished and dismayed when they found him weeping. They asked their beloved teacher why he wsa crying. Could it be that God would ask him why he had not been a visionary pioneer like Abraham? Rabbi Zusya answered that he had no such worry, for after all, God had not made him like Abraham. Then perhaps God would criticize him for not being like Moses, the most humble of leaders? "Heavens no," the rabbi replied. "If God had wanted me to be like Moses, God would have made me like Moses. No," he told them, "I am weeping because I fear that the Holy One will ask me why I was not Zusya. (Wise Aging, Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal, p. 25)

We are spiritual beings having a physical experience. How do we brush aside the physical perception, to view the underlying spiritual and eternal? That question confronts us this day. We have the next 24 hours to decide. May we use them to their greatest benefit. Tselem Elohim, "the image of God," sits next to you and all around you. What will you do to make that real in your life beginning now?

Ken yehi ratzon.

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© 2016 by Rabbi Mark H. Levin.