Rosh Hashanah - Day 2 - 2013-5774
Back in July Lenore and I vacationed in Peru. Like all South American countries Peru defines its history as either pre-Spanish conquest or post Spanish conquest. Before 1533 Peru was ruled by the Inca empire which covered most of western South America. The Incas were known for their sophisticated agriculture and for their advanced astronomy. Many of the Incan sites we saw were temples to the sun whose incredible features were windows that were fashioned in such a way that only on June 21 - the summer solstice - would the sunlight fully shine through. One temple even had many buttresses whose shadows would be aligned in a perfectly straight line on June 21. As a result of the ingenuity of the Incas there are festivals at these temples every year on June 21 and people gather there for spiritual inspiration.
Not only do people gather on the first day of summer but they gather all the time to feel the energy of the spot. That’s exactly how our guide phrased it when we were on Machu Picchu. He wanted us to try and feel the energy emanating from a particular rock. People in our group dutifully held their hands over the rock and I even felt some heat but I knew that it wasn’t left over Inca religion but rather because the sun had been shining on it for a while.
Even though I was skeptical there were hundreds of people on Machu Picchu who not only were impressed but actually had made the pilgrimage to seek spiritual energy. It was obvious that people had journeyed from around the globe to feel some spirituality in their lives. There were people from Australia and Holland that we traveled with and people from many other countries who wanted to hike the Inca trail and walk in the path of the ancient Incan priests so that some of that religious aura could enter their souls.
As I reflect upon that experience in Peru I realize a few things. First, it is very clear how important it is for people to seek spirituality in their lives. We hear stories of people flocking to ancient temples, or to majestic mountains, or ancient ruins hoping that some kind of energy would enter their beings. Comic strips make fun of people who climb high mountains seeking the guru who will provide them the answer to the meaning of life. Why do people do this? Why is it so crucial for so many people to find this spiritual paradise?
Perhaps people recognize that life is hectic and stressful. Because of the strains and tensions that work and finances and family put on their lives, people need an outlet. People need to seek refuge and perhaps in that place of sanctuary they not only can find peace but perhaps some rejuvenation. What better place to find that than in a place that has some history or some natural beauty and majesty.
Another factor in this spiritual search could be that surveys consistently show that 80% of Americans believe in God. That belief in God is left open in the survey, meaning people aren’t asked about a specific form of worship or a definite theology. The open-ended answer means that 80% of Americans believe in some kind of higher power. Perhaps then the overwhelming crowds at sites like Machu Picchu or Ayers Rock in Australia or Stonehenge in England could reflect this search for God.
Also related to this could be that many of those spiritual seekers could be turned off by organized religion. Perhaps they find church, synagogue or mosque to be too formal in their service or too demanding on their behavior or too rigid in their practice. Perhaps they have had some negative experience or perhaps they have been too afraid or overwhelmed to even enter a house of worship. Perhaps their personal belief in God is an individual one which they want to experience on their own.
Seeking peace and sanctuary from life, belief in God and being turned away by organized religion could be just some of the reasons that people seek spirituality. But as I reflect on my experience on Machu Picchu I realize something else. Not only did I see how important spirituality is in many people’s lives I also realize that people have different definitions of spirituality. Many people were in awe of the Incan temples and many were moved to tears. Many found that place to be spiritually motivating. Though I was impressed by Incan technology and skills I thought more about how similar the construction techniques were to the building of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem. I did not feel at all that God was on Machu Picchu nor was I moved to tears.
I realize therefore that it’s important to define what I mean by spirituality. For me a spiritual moment is one packed with layers of emotional meaning that results in feeling as if one is in the presence of God. Machu Picchu has no emotional meaning to me. It is a beautiful place. It lives up to being one of the seven wonders of the world. It is truly majestic and awe inspiring. But it doesn’t have spiritual meaning to me.
The emotional connections that I need to have are based on three ideas. One is that the moment has to reflect some history. I feel spiritual when at that moment I know that Jews either have been there or done that for centuries before me. As I’m in the moment doing that spiritual act I recognize that I am just another link in the long chain of history, of people who have done this or been there before and a long chain that hopefully will come after me.
Another factor in making a moment spiritual to me is my family. If my family is with me or members of my family who are deceased have been there then the moment can be spiritual. The historical significance of the Jewish people along with the recognition that my family is part of that adds to the spiritual impact of that moment.
History and family must also combine with my religious, moral and ethical values. The moment becomes spiritual to me when it reflects the values I have been taught and the values that I have tried to impart to my children. When history, family and values combine it makes for a truly remarkable and awesome spiritual moment.
Now it’s clear why Machu Picchu wasn’t spiritual for me. I am not Incan nor am I Peruvian. The site had no historical significance to my life. I wasn’t raised praying toward Machu Picchu. My family had never been there before so we didn’t have family stories of prior visits to that site. Nor did I have any religious, moral or ethical values associated with that Incan place. So though I could be impressed in so many ways by visiting Peru nothing about it was spiritual.
However at the end of July I did have a spiritual moment that did move me to tears. All 4 of my children were at Camp Ramah this summer - located in Palmer, MA. It’s the overnight camp of the Conservative Movement and it’s a place that all of my kids - even the three oldest who are on staff there - look forward to going to every summer. Sending our kids to Camp Ramah is really one of the best decisions Lenore and I made for our kids not only for the sense of independence it promotes but for all they learn there about being Jewish. Camp Ramah is a place where for 4 or 8 weeks kids can be naturally Jewish with Jewish peers.
One of the highlights of the week for the older campers - those who just became Bnai Mitzvah and older - is shabbat. And the highlight of shabbat is dinner Saturday evening. The highlight isn’t the food that’s served - believe me it’s disgusting! - but rather the songs that are sung after the meal. We know that it is traditional to sing “zemirot” - songs - at the Friday night dinner table; we sing some at our monthly shabbat dinners. But it’s also traditional to sing at shabbat lunch and at the meal known as “se’udah shlisheet” - the 3rd meal - just before shabbat ends. The songs at each of those meals reflects the mood - happy songs on Friday night as shabbat begins to sad songs on Saturday evening as shabbat is about to conclude.
The tradition at Camp Ramah is for the oldest group of kids - those entering 11th grade - to lead everyone in these “se’udah shlisheet” songs. They make a point of moving their benches from their tables to the middle of the dining room. They gather these big posters with names of songs and page numbers for the song books they distribute to everyone. 4 or 5 of them are designated as the leaders and everyone else joins in with great spirit. All the campers at all the tables - boys bunks and girls bunks - have their arms around each other as they sing these beautiful “zemirot”.
I couldn’t sing the songs because I truly was in tears. That moment a few weeks ago was spiritual in more ways than Machu Picchu could ever be because that moment of singing was packed with layers of emotional meaning that results in feeling as if one is in the presence of God. That’s my definition of spirituality and that’s what happened on shabbat afternoon July 27.
More than 100 years ago the great Jewish essayist known as Ahad Ha’am said that more than the Jew has kept the sabbath the sabbath has kept the Jew. This highlights the historical significance that shabbat has played in Jewish history. Shabbat is a defining aspect of what it means to be Jewish going back to when God rested on the 7th day after 6 days of creation. Historically speaking Shabbat is one of the most ancient of all Jewish rituals.
I also grew up observing Shabbat. Going to shul on shabbat, reciting kiddush, having the day of rest has always been a part of my life. One of my earliest memories, not just a Jewish memory, is when I was 4 or 5 walking to shul with my father. As a family Lenore and I have tried very hard to instill Shabbat observance in our home as well. It gives us great pleasure when we hear our older kids, who are free to make their own choices away at school, tell us about their shabbat experiences.
So when I know the history of Shabbat in Jewish life and that combines with the family experience I have had along with value of shabbat that Lenore and I have tried to instill and I see it all play out in front of my eyes then I can’t help but feel spiritually moved. I saw my son and his friends with their arms around each other in the place that is very special on the day that is most holy and it all coalesced into a tremendous experience.
I have shared personal spiritual moments with you before but I don’t think I have been as clear as I want to be now. If it is true that people seek spirituality and if one defines spirituality as I do then when one finds spirituality it is truly amazing. But what’s even more amazing is that it’s not that hard to find. I didn’t go seeking for that shabbat moment it just happened. If we put history, family and values together then we are almost guaranteed to find those moments in our lives.
And that’s exactly what the rabbis wanted us to do. When they interpreted the Torah and created the system we now know as Judaism they did so to enable us to find God’s presence in our lives. You might think I’m about to tell you that the way to be spiritual is to become fully observant of Jewish law and practice. If I did that would go against my observations I shared at the beginning of this talk. I know that people are turning away from organized religion. I know that people think that synagogues aren’t spiritual havens. But at the same time I know that the synagogue is the place to more easily be spiritual. When we open the ark in a little while and sing together “berosh hashanah yikateyvun” that to me will be a spiritual moment. Next week when we sing Kol Nidrei together that will be spiritual. When we gather at shabbat dinner and say kiddush, when we gather to recite the prayers, when we observe Yom HaShoah all of these and many others are potential moments of spirituality.
We just have to look for these moments. You don’t have to be fully observant of Jewish practice nor do you have to come to shul every shabbat to be Jewishly spiritual. You just have to make the effort and open yourself up to the beauty of that moment. On Rosh Hashanah we are supposed to make a commitment to improve our spiritual lives. We are to recognize where we may have strayed and commit ourselves to getting back on the moral, ethical and religious path. I urge you then to think about your spiritual path. Has it been meaningful? Can you think of ways that history, family and values can come together in your life? If you can then I know this will be a year of happiness and fulfillment. Shanah Tovah.