September 13, 2001
From the Heart
Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)
Sometimes life seems overwhelming.
For some, it's the stress of coping with raising their children in an apparently amoral world. For others, it is learning how to live each day in spite of enormous challenges to our bodies and our health. For others still, it is the experience of being squeezed in the "sandwich generation" between taking care of their kids and coping with the decaying physical or mental health of aging parents.
For too many, any natural inclination they might have to search for meaning and purpose in life seems to consistently take a back seat to the strain of all it takes just to make a living. Yet, Judaism expects more from us. Judaism teaches that we are created in the image of God, and in the words of Pierre Teillhard de Chardin, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience." The irony is that it is by having this human/physical experience that we come most directly in touch with the holy and sacred in life.
For life to be filled with holiness, the first and most important ingredient is gratitude. Each morning when we wake up, we are commanded by Jewish tradition to utter words of thanks for the miracle of daily rebirth. "Thank you, Sovereign of the Universe, for graciously returning my soul back to my body -- your faithfulness is magnificent." These are the traditional words of prayer that Jews have recited daily for over a thousand years.
Giving thanks with a simple prayer each morning teaches us that Jewish religious practice is fundamentally an intimate affair -- all that is necessary is a caring soul with an open and loving heart.
Too often we think there is some great knowledge, or technique, or prerequisite wisdom or learning that must take place before we qualify for undertaking serious spiritual work. This week in the Torah, we learn the exact opposite is true.
The Torah tells us that every one of us is perfectly suited and qualified, as we are, to engage in growing our own souls and following our own spiritual paths. "Surely, this Torah which I give you this day, is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:11-14.)
We read this passage and are reminded once again that normative Judaism expects us to be engaged in a lifelong search for spiritual meaning and purpose. We are expected to pursue spiritual growth and knowledge for its own sake. We are encouraged to discover that the most important things in life aren't things at all -- they are encountering other human souls, nurturing relationships and giving love. We learn this week that the things that matter most are as close to us as our own mouths and hearts. Perhaps this is our ancestors' way of teaching us that not only do the words that we speak really matter, but the intentions of our words count, as well. Yes, it is so easy to get overwhelmed by life. From school, to friends, to family, to jobs, to the state of the planet, to the messages we get from movies, television, magazines and the Internet today. So, remember, as you join with fellow Jews to celebrate Rosh Hashana during the week ahead, the wise words of this week's Torah portion: that the lessons of life we truly seek can be found within ourselves. The Torah speaks of our mouths and our hearts, and it's hard to get much more intimate than that.