When humans grow, they must shed some aspect of their former selves. This demands a painful renunciation, a renunciation of a little bit of who I was last week, of the comfortable skin I am used to calling myself.
For example, if a person with a volatile temper aspires to be less angry, she must change her knee-jerk reaction to events that set her off. In the process of overcoming this negative trait, she must speak and act differently than she was used to doing her whole life. Such effort to break habitual patterns requires not only hard work, but also the desire to be different, to shed the familiar fiery persona.
For a human being to really grow spiritually, he or she must break the comfort barrier.
This can be frightening, and at times exhilarating.
Two Kinds Of Jews
“There are only two kinds of Jews in the world.” The rabbi was addressing a group of thirty Canadian teenagers on a roof in Jerusalem’s Old City. “Those who are moving forward and those who aren’t.”
His words resonated with me. Some 30 years before, as a college student, I had abandoned the Judaism I was raised on, because I considered it totally static. I set out in search of a spiritual path. A path, by definition, takes you somewhere.
After 17 years immersed in Eastern religions, I attended a lecture by Rabbi Dovid Din, of blessed memory. He said that halacha, or Torah law, came from the root word meaning, “to walk, to go.” “Halacha is a path,” he asserted. “You move along it.”
That revelation hit me like a thunderbolt. If Torah was really a dynamic spiritual path, I was willing to take my first tentative steps along it.
In fact, the metaphor of a path is not quite correct. I can traverse thousands of miles of path, amass a 100,000 frequent-flyer miles, and still be the same person as when I set out, albeit a little wiser and a little travel weary. On a real spiritual path, it is the person, not the scenery, which changes. I know I am “moving forward” if I am not the same person I was a year ago. A spiritual odometer tracks inner changes, not outer mileage.
Many paths are level and straight. A real spiritual path is steep and occasionally has sudden turns. The Torah term for change is tshuva, which means “returning,” that is, changing directions. One’s values, actions, and priorities experience a radical shift. One who treads the path in comfort is on a holiday hike, not a spiritual path.
Jumpng Into The Abyss
During my 15th year of living in a Hindu-style ashram, a spiritual community in the woods of Massachusetts, I was given a two-month leave of absence. I spent the time studying Torah with a rabbi in New York, and at some point decided to commit myself to observing the mitzvoth of the Torah.
The only problem was that I had no intention of leaving the ashram, where I worked full time as the Guru’s personal secretary and the ashram administrator. I headed the publishing department, was in charge of the investments, and taught Vedanta during the Guru’s frequent absences. The ashram not only set the parameters for my spiritual path, but also for my whole life. I had no other home, friends, or career. To leave the ashram was unthinkable.
My unflappable rabbi was not fazed. Returning from a speaking engagement in Vermont, he detoured with me to my Guru’s private retreat house on Cape Cod. During a one-hour conversation with her, he laid out all the requirements of a Torah-observant Jew. My Guru, totally unwilling to lose me, agreed to them all. She would build me my own cabin with my own kosher kitchen. Saturday would be my day off. As for the idol worship taking place in the inner shrine, I would be exempt from shrine duty forever.
I felt relieved as I drove the rabbi back to New York. I could be a Torah-observant Jew without having to lose anything I held dear.
I extended my two-month leave of absence for another two months and went to study Torah in Jerusalem for the summer. When it was time to fly back to the ashram, I felt as torn as if I were on the Inquisitioner’s rack. My will was to return to my familiar life at the ashram, where I enjoyed a certain status, prestige, and security. God’s will was for me to practice Torah in Jerusalem, where I was a thirty-seven-year-old neophyte, ignorant of the basics which every six-year-old child here could expound on.
I had no money, no job prospects (imagine my resume: 1970-1985 ashram secretary), and no health insurance. I also had no assurance that I would find someone to marry. I had met many prettier women who had been here for years who were still single.
The words from Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, Saint Francis, kept reverberating in my mind. Francis visits an old holyman and asks, “What is the path?” The holyman replies: “It’s not a path. It’s an abyss. Jump.”
Two-and-a-half years later, when my brother visited me, my husband, and our baby daughter in Jerusalem, he said to me: “You’re like a cat. You jump from the top of tall buildings and always land on your feet.”
I corrected him: “I land in God’s arms.”
The Copernican Revolution
This is not to say that a person who aspires to grow in Judaism must change every aspect of his or her life. Only one change is necessary, but it is absolutely essential: An aspirant must take himself or herself out of the director’s seat, and put God there.
In every large and small decision, the Divine will, rather than one’s own will, must be the deciding factor.
Of course, for those of us raised on secular humanism, this requires a Copernican revolution. We have been conditioned to believe that the individual is the center of the universe. To abdicate my will to anyone, even or especially God, is the ultimate heresy in the religion of secular humanism.
National Review editor David Klinghoffer, in his articulate and thought-provoking book, The Lord Will Gather Me In, writes about his visit, as an adult, with the Reform rabbi at the synagogue where he grew up. Klinghoffer, struggling with the same issue, was seeking to clarify the Reform position on the obligatory nature of Torah. The rabbi explained: ” . . .the choice to obey the Torah or not is based on what I find meaningful and relevant. The Reform movement interprets Jewish tradition to say that the Covenant allows for informed individual choice.” Klinghoffer sums it up: “In other words, Reform means doing what you want.”
But growing — in any spiritual path — entails sometimes, or often, doing what you don’t want. This is the comfort barrier which must be broken en route to any serious spiritual growth. Every day, sometimes every hour, poses challenges and opportunities for growth. Wherever one is on the spectrum of religious observance, the imperative is to take the initiative of the next step beyond one’s comfort zone. Complacency is the opposite of Judaism.
The imperative to grow and change applies to all of us, including those who have been Torah observant for decades, or who were born into observant families. Teshuva, the process of turning around, is incumbent upon every Jew, every day.
The Mishna says: “Do teshuva the day before you die.” Since obviously no one knows which day he will die, the implication is that one should do teshuva every day.
I remember a Yom Kippur about four years after I had left the ashram and started living a Torah observant life in Jerusalem. The whole theme of Yom Kippur is to do teshuva, to change our ways, so that God can grant us the gift of atonement. That Yom Kippur I suddenly woke up and realized that I had to do teshuva again! I had been coasting, resting on my laurels after the great exertion of changing my whole lifestyle. I had already done teshuva, I felt, so what were these 400 pages of the Yom Kippur service all about? I was comfortable in my new life style.
Suddenly I experienced that same queasy feeling as my first day in college, when I realized — after working like a Trojan for four years of high school so that I would get admitted to a top university — that now I had to start studying hard all over again so I could get into a top grad school. Standing there in synagogue that Yom Kippur, I realized that the struggle to be better, kinder, more patient, more accepting of God’s will, is never ending. The path has its plateaus, but its endpoint recedes like the horizon.
A story is told about William James, who was a Professor of Psychology at Harvard almost a century ago. At the end of one of James’s public lectures, a man from the audience approached him.
“Professor James,” the man began. “I was a student of yours ten years ago, and I heard you lecture on the exact same subject. But what you said tonight totally contradicted what you said then.”
“My good man,” James replied. “Do you think I’ve been standing still?”
Growing requires the courage to reexamine our assumptions and values, to admit that who we are today is not the best that we can be, and sometimes to expose ourselves to the charge of contradicting our own positions and tenets. As George Bernard Shaw said, “False consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Everyone of us must grow, change, push ourselves to become a better person and a better Jew than we were last week. In these difficult times, we can afford to have only one kind of Jew: the kind who is willing to take the initiative by moving forward.