What is the most common word used in discussions about religion today? You might think it is "God," "prayer," or "faith." We hear those words a lot.
But most common of all is "spirituality": it is frequently used, rarely defined, and difficult to define. There is no Classical Hebrew equivalent: in Modern Hebrew it's called ruchaniyut. The concept of spirituality comes more from Christian philosophy, which historically divides world into the material and the spiritual. In Judaism we see only one world: material and spiritual at the same time. And in Judaism, the material is always potentially spiritual. The most ordinary, mundane thing has the potential to be spiritual: dirt, sweat, food, snow, or rain.
Why is the search for spirituality so important today?
You can probably answer that question as well as I can. We've passed through a decade or two – some would say centuries – of materialism: industrial revolution, scientific breakthroughs, technology formerly unimagined. We've seen prosperity in this country and other Western lands. We have accomplished a great deal materially and indulged ourselves generously. And we've paid little attention to the non-material, the spiritual. Sometimes we've grown so distant from the spiritual that we've forgotten it existed – or how to connect with it.
The Kobriner Rebbe used this simple teaching: he turned to his Chasidim and asked: "Do you know where God is?" He took a piece of bread, showed it to them, and observed: "God is in this piece of bread. Without God's expression of power in all nature, this bread would have no existence."1
Some people think that God is hiding from us. But as we learn in the Book of Jonah (chapter 1) it is we who hide from God.
How do we hide from God? We hide by not letting ourselves think in spiritual ways; by avoiding places, moments, and situations where we might be more open to God; by convincing ourselves that we are not spiritual.
Most modern Jews have lost the ability to pray. We're better at investment strategies, golf, or tennis than at prayer. We're better at computer games than at Jewish study. We're better at travel than at Torah. Then we wake up one day and realize that something is missing.
In this week's portion, Vayeitzei, we read about a realization like this. Following his parents' instructions, Jacob departs from Beersheba and heads for Haran. He comes upon a certain place and, with the sun setting, lays down to go to sleep. Then he has an extraordinary dream in which angels appear to go first up and then down a ladder. It's possible that the order of activity – first up, then down--indicates that communication is initiated by Jacob: the angels are his messengers to God. In the dream, God says, "Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth" (Genesis 28:14), and promises, "Here I am, with you: I will watch over you wherever you go . . . (Genesis 28:15). Jacob awakens and affirms the Presence of God, saying, "Truly the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!" (Genesis 28:16). This is a deeply spiritual moment when an ordinary place becomes special, unique, set apart, godly.
Jacob goes further: "How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!" (Genesis 28:17). Jacob teaches us that God can be found everywhere – or nowhere. Jacob reached beyond the confines of his daily routine to find larger meaning in his life.
That's what spirituality is about – finding larger meaning in our life.
We tend to seek out meaning in times of trouble. After 9/11, many people spoke to me and our other clergy about finding larger meaning in their lives. But finding meaning is a challenge and an opportunity all throughout our lives.
Like Jacob, we are always standing before the "gate of heaven." But first we must reach out. Ladders are constantly being lowered into our lives when we have almost hit bottom. Sometimes they take the form of a teacher or a friend; sometimes a book or a prayer.
Jacob's ladder is fragile, and his faith is tenuous. He answers conditionally, "If God is with me and watches over me . . . and if I return safely to my father's house, then will the Eternal be my God (Genesis 28:20-21). But it's a beginning . . . and a very good one.
It is up to us to take the first steps, one rung at a time, beginning at the bottom of whatever ladder we face. No matter how defeated we might feel by earthly events, we must remember that we have a spiritual identity that cannot be diminished by what happens around us.
Everyone is potentially spiritual. Everything is potentially spiritual. Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk taught that God is wherever we let God in.2 It is up to us to discover many moments, many places, many encounters when we can let God in.
- Based on Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters (New York Schocken Books, 1948), p. 163
- Ibid., p. 277
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff , past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey. He is vice president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life (Ktav).