June 28, 2011
Real Spirituality: Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)
Spirituality, kabbalah and meditation are buzzwords in today’s religious lexicon. But do they really describe religion?
A number of years ago, my mother, who lives in Cleveland, received a call from the major local paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The paper was doing a feature story on the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, for its weekend column on religion. They called my mother, an Orthodox rebbitzen and a well-respected academic, for her observations. During the interview, the reporter asked my mother, “When you went to the mikveh, did you experience spirituality?” My mother answered, “All religious experiences involve spirituality. If you mean, did I feel a halo hover over my head, no. But did I feel I was performing a divine commandment? Then definitely, yes.”
The divine commandment as the ultimate spiritual moment explains an enigmatic story that has occupied the attention of Bible scholars from time immemorial. The story occurs right after Miriam dies, and the water supply for the Jews in the desert suddenly goes dry. To rectify the problem, God commands Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock in order to extract water. But, in a moment of frustration, Moses hits the rock twice with his staff and subsequently water miraculously gushes forth. Following this act, the Torah records that God said to Moses and Aaron, “You did not believe in Me enough to sanctify Me in the presence of the Children of Israel. Therefore, you will not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).
The punishment was swift in coming, but one must wonder how God could claim that Moses and Aaron did not sanctify His name? Did anyone who witnessed the water gushing out of the rock think this was not a miracle? Certainly everyone present knew that it was a great miracle. When does a rock produce water, let alone more water than the mass of the rock itself, which certainly violates every law of basic physics?
Perhaps, however, we can find an answer to this problem. God wanted Moses and Aaron to speak and not to perform any act. God wanted the Jewish people to learn that you do not have to do “wild and crazy” acts to encounter the Almighty. The lesson God wanted us to learn was that we just have to speak and God listens.
In simple language, if you want spirituality, you don’t need meditation or kabbalah. You don’t need anyone teaching you mysticism. In Judaism, the greatest spiritual encounter is simply talking to God. Every time we thank God for our physical needs, such as in the morning blessings when we thank Him for our ability to see, to walk and to care for our bodily functions, we have achieved the ultimate spiritual moment possible.
And maybe that is the point. What is Jewish spirituality? The answer is realizing that we must be grateful to God for all of the gifts we receive daily. Spirituality isn’t mystical; it is rational and concrete. We just have to think about what we do, and then it all becomes a remarkably close encounter with the divine.
Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum once told me the following story:
After years of trying to locate documentation of religious heroism among the Orthodox community during the Holocaust, he finally made some inroads by interviewing a Chasidic rebbe who had survived those ghastly years. The rebbe recounted how, in 1944, he was assigned to clear the railroad tracks in Auschwitz after Jews arrived at the concentration camp and deposited their belongings on the tracks. Following the arrival of a train filled with Hungarian Jews, he found a pair of tefillin and smuggled them into his barracks. Every morning, while it was still dark outside, he tried to put on tefillin. He wasn’t successful every day, but the days he was, he told Berenbaum, he will never forget. Wearing those tefillin in the hell of Auschwitz proved to be the most spiritual moments of his life.
The real spiritual story in Judaism is encountering God every day by performing mitzvot and conversing with God in prayer. That isn’t a buzzword; that is reality.