The Hard Work of Spirituality

Toward the end of this week’s parsha, the Torah presents a very striking, yet little known, fact. Abraham, who was childless for most of his life, resulting in various marital challenges and finally the births of Ishmael and Isaac, at the end of his life, suddenly fathers six additional children.  Even more curious, the Torah reveals little about the fate of these children.  The Torah merely introduced them and states that Abraham gave them “gifts” and sent them to the East.  The Torah never returns to discuss them.

About these gifts, Rashi explains cryptically that Abraham gave them, “the name of impurity,” suggesting that Abraham gave them access to some type of impure spiritual power.  The Zohar indicates that Abraham gave them powers to help protect them from the tendency toward idol worship.

A further explanation that I heard from my rabbis is that Abraham gave these children an ability to connect to the spiritual realm without have to first perfect their character.  In other words, Abraham gave these children quick-fix spirituality.  Indeed, when looking at the religions and practices of the East, the focus of spirituality is on the adoption of various disciplines (meditation, yoga…), as opposed to the perfection of one’s character.

In Judaism, the opposite is the case.  The perfection of one’s character always precedes the attainment of great spiritual heights.  This is not to say that spiritual practices are unimportant.  First and foremost, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Jewish spiritual life centered around the sacrifices and other rituals performed by the priests.  Today, we still learn Torah, pray three times a day, and have 613 mitzvahs to perform.  Still, the development of one’s middot, one’s character, is fundamental.  Torah and derech eretz (proper behavior) go hand-in-hand.  In Judaism, one cannot be said to be growing spiritually, if one is not growing personally.

Achieving personal growth, and ultimately spiritual growth, requires as much effort and concentration as any other aspect of Judaism.  In fact, an entire school of thought known as the mussar movement focused on this aim.  The Ramban encouraged that before getting up from studying, one should always search for something practical to take away for your effort.  The Talmud, the Ramchal, and many sages have emphasized setting aside time during the day to examine your actions – taking time at the beginning of the day to consider, “Who do I want to be today,” and taking a few moments at the end of the day to reflect, “Was I that person I wanted to be.”  They refer to this process as cheshbon hanefesh – a spiritual accounting.  According to all, in Judaism, there is no quick-fix spirituality. 

True, deep, spirituality requires real work.  Taking the time to examine yourself requires effort and discipline.  Being honest and confronting what you see is not for the faint of heart.  Yet, our sages tell us that this is the path to becoming a truly spiritual person, to connecting with G-d on the highest level.

This entry was posted on Friday, November 18th, 2011 at 12:57 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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