If you dig long and hard enough, sooner or later, you’ll find what you’re looking for, like an explorer in search of a rare gem. The treasure we found recently was Congregation B’nai Jeshrun in New York’s upper West Side. We read rumors that B’nai Jeshrun was the hot spot for Friday night services in New York. Noted for its intensely spirited, ecstatic prayer, we had to get a first hand glimpse at what everyone was raving about, and I must say we were not in the least disappointed. We arrived about twenty minutes early to get a close up view and by the time the service began, the exquisitely decorative synagogue was packed with somewhere between seven and eight hundred people, at best guess.
service for welcoming Shabbat, opened with a soul-stirring,
that continued in the same mood until about halfway through
the mystically inspired hymn that ushers in Shabbat. When from
out of no where the tempo accelerated to a foot stomping
rhythm and lines
of dancers formed in the aisles. For the next fifteen or so
soared with an ecstatically joyful congregation energizing the
with clapping, leaping, springing and drumming on any object
that was handy.
What an experience! We left after the services, exhilarated
looking towards next Friday night, when the tumult on Broadway
us back down to earth again with a crashing thud. We still had
of Shabbat to enjoy, but a thought kept nagging me: What do
you do to keep
your spirit alive from one Shabbat to the next. This naturally
the question—What is spirituality?
If you try to define it intellectually, you may wind up with any one of a number of conclusions. Many of us have the mistaken notion that spirituality is a separate department of life, sort of the penthouse of our existence. Some of us even believe that attending synagogue and listening to the Torah reading is engaging in spirituality. A few definitions that might fit is to say that spirituality is a longing for the Holy One; or an awareness of something more than meets the eye; or a journey toward wholeness. It is also a search for purpose and meaning in life. My favorite definition is the art of making connections or the knowledge of the heart.
Once we get the rational interpretation out of the way, we can focus on the real nature of spirituality. Life is a sacred adventure and we find holiness in everyday life, at least that is the character of Jewish spirituality. We don’t go off to monasteries or retreats. Our most sacred time, Shabbat, is spent at our own homes and with our own communities; the chassidic rebbes sought spiritual experience by hanging around market places to find someone in need of a helping hand. Every day we encounter signs that point to an active presence of spirit; everything that happens inside and outside of us is brimming with spiritual meaning, points of connection with spirit.
The events of that Friday night caused us to come alive. It demonstrated what spirituality could be. It might not have been permanent, but it afforded us a taste. What makes people come alive? For some it’s listening to music. For others, it may be while walking on a deserted beach at sunset; or watching a baby smile; or gazing at a flower. I can remember that high during a five mile run on a perfect spring day. But it’s still only a glimpse of the Divine. Wherever we come alive, that is the area in which we’re spiritual.
Real spirituality comes about only when we can awaken that joy in every aspect of our lives: with people, with nature, with work and especially with those areas we dislike the most. It’s a goal that perhaps we’ll never reach, but one well worth the effort. The Talmud teaches that you are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it (Pirke Avot 2:21).
The road to elevated
lies in reading the sacred in everyday life. It is a process
practicing self-awareness, paying greater attention to the
everyday experiences: sensations, thoughts and feelings. It’s
gratification; it takes time, but with persistence it can
unlock the miracle
of the most ordinary moments to find outrageous joy in
Somehow that’s what I think the Torah is alluding to when God
grants the Israelites the Promised Land, a land flowing with
milk and honey.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like for a person who was
to be miraculously given the gift of vision. What would a
tree, a dollar
bill, the Mona Lisa look like? It would seem like a most
I think. That’s how I imagine life where every moment comes