August 2016, Parshat Vaetchanan, the nature of spirituality

Dear friends,

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vaetchanan, may arguably be the most important portion in the entire Torah. It not only includes the Ten Commandments but also features the first paragraph of the Shema; the most sacred and well-known Jewish prayer.

Although this prayer is so renowned and distinguished, when asked, few are able to give a meaningful account of its content. The truth is however, the Shema is actually not only simple, attainable and relatable, it is also revolutionary.

The first line of the Shema proclaims the unity of God. What is the big deal? One God, many gods, who cares? The answer must lie in the radically different outlook which gives rise to the One God idea.

Before Judaism gave birth to this idea of One God, humans worshipped many gods. The fact that the gods they worshipped always corresponded to the forces of nature, gives us a clue as to their understanding of god. For them the gods were fearsome capricious amoral beings who needed placating by service and devotion – primarily through sacrifices the greatest of which were human.

Judaism on the other hand, does not see the forces of nature as distinct godly beings with anger management issues. Rather, it views everything in nature and beyond as being the product of a supreme force which Itself is pure love and compassion. That Supreme Being is called God.

Take for instance the phenomenon of volcanic eruption. Before Judaism people believed that this was the rumblings of a particularly adolescent god who at any time could smite and bring about vast devastation. Today, with the benefit of science we understand that volcanic eruptions are indispensable for life on earth as they are the cause of soil fertility. So the very thing that was feared as the act of angry monsters is now demonstrably the product of a positive force aimed at sustaining life. Whether we call that force Nature or God is merely a matter of semantics.

But of course it is not only forces of nature that are included in the idea of God in Judaism. Everything is included in the idea of God. As we read in this week’s Parsha ‘And you should know today and emotionally internalise the fact that God is everything, there is nothing outside of It’.

What is the purpose of internalising this seemingly abstract philosophical position about metaphysical reality? That we are told in the next line of the Shema, ‘And you should love God’. In other words, the whole point of the revolution in thought is that it culminates in the emotional response of love. Love to whom? To God. But as we just said God in Judaism is everything including everyone. So the commandment in the Shema to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might, is in effect saying ‘make love, not war’ in relation to everyone and everything.

The question is often asked, how can we be commanded to love? A feeling is hardly something that can be elicited by demands! A positive feeling much less so!

The answer is twofold: First and foremost is the fact that in Judaism a human being is fundamentally constituted by love. Therefore, when we are commanded to love we are simply being asked to connect with our innate spirituality. In other words, the negative emotions and attitudes accrued along the way of life’s journey that inhibit the sense of love is merely baggage we can divest ourselves of when we put our hearts and minds to it.

But how do we go about connecting with our innate spirituality? There are indeed many pathways. For some it is through music. For others, through experience of nature. For yet others, through a myriad of other activities. The common denominator between them all is that they enable us to transcend our petty egos and experience the divine light which is everywhere.

The Jewish way as articulated in the Shema, is by putting on the Tefillin, affixing a Mezuza, and wearing Tzitzit. We are commanded to put the Tefillin on our arms corresponding to our hearts and on our heads beside our minds. The whole point of the ritual observance is therefore clearly as an aid to internalising the truth of the One God and the love this idea should foster. That is also the point of the Mezuza and Tzitzit, as a constant reminder on every doorpost and on the very clothes we wear.

That is not to say that these rituals are at all mutually exclusive to music, nature, or any other mode of spiritual experience. In fact, in Temple times, daily music was a primary way of relating to God. The greatest Chasidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, used to regularly go into the woods to connect with God.

Personally, I discovered a whole new mode of spiritual connection only very recently, through the simple act of meditation. At its most basic, meditation is about breath. We literally breathe all the time, yet we are mostly unaware of it because of distractions in our subjective experience. The more we learn to gently and compassionately focus our attention on the breath, the greater our ability to find a state of serenity where we can let go of our frustrations, desires, and fears.

In my experience, meditation brings with it so many benefits it is hard to overstate. Clarity of mind, inner peace, a sense of connectedness, calm, more tolerant, and many other positive side-affects. But its greatest feature is that it spreads the love. For it teaches us to become observers rather than judges. Through this we become kinder, more compassionate human beings to everyone including ourselves. As the Buddha says ‘If your compassion doesn’t include yourself, it is incomplete.’

Whether we put on Tefillin, meditate, sing, go out to nature, or ideally all of the above, the whole point is that we nurture our innate spirituality which at the end of the day must translate into ‘Veahavta – and you shall love’.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shneur