The Real Value of Living a Spiritual Life

Based on The Torah Portion Mishpatim

Many people turn to religion because they have a deep spiritual hunger, and feel there is a hole in their heart or in their soul. They believe there are answers to life’s mysteries and solutions to all our problems. If we just prayed enough, or studied enough we would achieve enlightenment and perfect equanimity. We would never get angry again or sad. The world would no longer be scary.

Among this group are people who had one incredible spiritual moment, when everything came together and made sense.

They spend the rest of their lives chasing that feeling, but are usually frustrated. They believe if they could recreate that moment, all their problems would be solved. The moment never returns. Their lives are still confusing, and a day to day struggle to keep up.

This is a challenge even for clergy. Many of us became rabbis or cantors because we had one extraordinary moment, and then dedicated their lives to finding it again for themselves, or at least helping others find theirs. I will admit that I am one of them.

Many of us who pursue more spirituality oriented lives think that we will be enlightened at the end of the process, that we will never be thrown off balance, and that everyone will respond to our enlightenment by doing pretty much everything we say. This rarely happens.

Suzuki Roshi had a great comment. He said there are no enlightened people, just enlightened activities. That is, there is not permanent happy state of mind, only opportunities to be helpful and kind to others, opportunities to fight for the freedom and well being of others.

This is the overall theme of our Torah portion.

People had just stood at Sinai, the greatest revelation of God and spirituality in human history. They probably assumed everything would be perfect from then on. No more messiness, no more difficult relationships, no more real effort.

That is not what happens. In our Torah portion we see that life continued to be and endless series of challenges and dangers and unpredictable events. There are ethical dilemmas that are not solvable, only manageable.

As Jack Kornfeld puts it, after the ecstasy, you still have to do the laundry.

Religion is not about solving and fixing everything. It is not even about understanding everything. If that is what we are waiting to happen, we will wait for the rest of our lives in increased frustration, or we may just abandon the spiritual quest. Any religion or at least religious leader that promises that if you follow all of its tenets you will no longer have problems is either fraudulent or delusional.

I believe that we should try to understand things as much as possible, to make the attempt to understand how the world works, what motivates people and what matters most to us. We should study history and science and psychology and art. At some point though, we have to give up the idea that we can understand why everything happens, especially things that are painful. For some situations, there will never be satisfying answers.

What then is the ultimate value of religion? I cannot speak on behalf of other faiths. I would like to share what it is about Judaism that I find so helpful.

Judaism to me is about having the courage and strength to face those challenges, and the kindness and compassion to help other people face theirs. It is about knowing that we are part of a people who stood together at Sinai, and then struggled through an uncertain future together, until they made it into the promised land. And even then, they knew their work was not done. They knew that life is not a mystery to be solved, but an opportunity for growth in wisdom and kindness, for appreciating the treasure of our lives, and for helping others, both our loved ones and strangers, to live meaningful and loving lives.

A light in times of darkness

Tonight is the last night of Chanukah, when all the candles are lit, and our homes are filled with light and joy. For too many Jews, though, this week, there was a shadow of darkness within the light.

Our people has been under siege from murderous attacks in kosher grocery stores and Chanukah parties in New York, to the desecration of a synagogue in the Iranian Jewish community in California, to vandalism in Europe from London to Belgium to Ukraine, to the daily attempts of Israel’s enemies to destroy it.

These attacks have been against religious Jews and secular ones. Hatred against our people makes no differentiation. No matter our disagreements with each other over politics or ritual, we are all deeply connected to each other, Kol Yisrael aravim ze bzeh. We have a continuous history that is long and rich and meaningful, and it is because we have always found a way to come together and help each other.

We must remember that the real story of Chanukah is having courage and living our lives without giving in to despair or hate. Our enemies tell us that we do not belong, that we should hide in fear, or disappear altogether.

Our response to tragedy and adversity, from the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees, to the establishment  of the State of Israel and the blooming of Jewish education around the world after the Holocaust, is to show that we are strong, that we are here, and that we will always rebuild our lives and will do so with courage and kindness and optimism. We will always be a light in the darkness.

We are blessed to live in a wonderful community that has law enforcement dedicated to our protection, and a Jewish Federation that is constantly in touch with government agencies to make sure that we stay safe.

I think the best response to those who hate us for being Jewish is to dedicate ourselves to living deeper Jewish lives, attending services as a community, learning together, and continuing to educate our children in the beauty and richness of our tradition. That was the response of our ancestors. Our descendants will thank us for the beautiful communities that we will bequeath them.

We should also make sure to stay connected to our allies in other communities who care about us and have rallied around us. We must make sure to be there for them in their times of need.

Rav Avraham Kook, who loved all Jews, noted that when we light the Chanukah lights, we say the blessing over a single light, ner shel Chanukah, no matter now many we are actually lighting. He said that we as a people, no matter how diverse, are a single light.

We are taught to be a light to the nations. When we are together, when we live proudly and publicly and as Jews, without giving in to fear and darkness, we can be the light and example the world needs.

Am Yisrael Chai