August 23, 2011
Seeing with the sixth sense
Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
Do we have a sixth sense?
There is a commandment: “Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). But how do we know we are on the right path? Some of us might run through a checklist: “I gave charity; check. I loved my neighbor today; check. I lit Shabbat candles; check.” But for most of us, doing right just feels right — like a satisfying chord of music. Likewise, doing wrong just feels wrong, like hearing a beginner scrape at a violin.
How are we to understand this? That our bodies are attuned to holiness the way the ear is attuned to music? I once overheard a woman say of her favorite synagogue: “It’s the only place where I feel spirituality.” Stranger yet, her friend nodded her head in agreement, “I feel the same way.”
But perhaps the idea is not so strange. We pause when a piano sonata is played beautifully. We can discern when a painting is transformed into a work of art. We can get lost in the petals of a rose or swept up in the majesty of mountains — we admit to an aesthetic sense, a musical sense, a sense of joy or a sense of sorrow. But might we also have a sacred sense — a sixth sense, if you will — a sense of the holy?
The challenge, though, is not in admitting that we have it; that’s easy. We know when a sermon sets the heart alight. We know when an old synagogue melody stirs the wind in our chest. The true test is tuning it, evolving it, so that we begin to listen for holiness not on the rare occasion but every day amid the mayhem of our lives. This task is far from easy.
In this week’s portion, Re’eh, we find Moses warning the Israelites against adopting the abhorrent rites of the Canaanites. Perhaps the most terrifying of these practices is the Amorite ritual of offering one’s children to the fires of Moloch (Deuteronomy 12:31). The sages, disturbed by this extraordinary cruelty, asked how it could be that parents stood by as their children were passed through the flame. Compassion would demand a normal parent to respond to the weeping of a daughter or son. Our rabbis suggested that acolytes would dance vigorously while pounding loud drums during the ritual. Amid the movement and sound, the cry of a small child became a trivial din in the background, easily dismissed (Radak, Rashi on II Kings 23:10).
Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the 20th century Chasidic master, made the following observation in his work “B’nei Machshava Tova.” He noted that “the cry of a child is not unlike the cry of the soul.” It is there and it is pleading, but a hundred other sensations are in competition with it; we are too enthralled by the hammering noise and vigorous dancing to notice its pleas.
Yet there is a way to pierce through the clamor and to snatch the soul from the flames. It involves practice. Rabbi Shapira notes that there is a palpable difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Each has a different feel, and if one pays close attention, one can note that each sparks a different sensation within. One holiday might evoke a sense of majesty, the other, a sense of awe and shame. There are differences between other holidays; there are even differences between Friday night and Shabbat afternoon. The kabbalists compared Kabbalat Shabbat to a reunion with a lover. In contrast, the third meal of Shabbat afternoon is filled with the foreboding of departure.
If one continues in this vein, one might slowly come to sense the sacred in everyday acts of kindness or kinship. One might learn that there is a vast difference in feeling between beseeching God and simply mouthing the words. In this way, bit by bit, cracks of holiness, felt here and there, are widened into chasms through which spirituality pours. C.S. Lewis once said: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” The soul is not a part of us; it is us. What we do for it, we do for ourselves.
As the High Holy Days approach, do yourself a favor: Let the soul listen, let it see, let it discern, and let it sift ... and when it finds the holiness about you — which is really within you — be sure to clasp its hand and pull the holiness from the flames. Lift and be lifted; listen and be moved.
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.