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Tending to Our Inner Lives

Dear Friends,

I am blessed to have spent this week on a hiking vacation with my wife Ellen, slowing down and drinking in the beautiful summer world. I have therefore not taken the time to compose a teaching this week. Instead I am sharing a teaching I offered after a backpacking trip I took ten years ago. It came to my mind as I walked the trails this week.

Shabbat Shalom and Enjoy!

Rabbi Jonathan


Tending to Our Inner Lives

The thrust of Jewish teachings is outward. Righteousness is founded on our treatment of others, and this is as it should be. It has been said that Judaism is a nearly 4,000-year-long discussion of ethics. We inherit a tradition that focuses on how to do the right thing. I treasure this legacy. It is down-to-earth and real. But I want to remind us of the equal requirement our tradition makes for inwardness, for paying attention to our inner lives.=

We live in a society that is out of balance, a society awash in material wealth but strangely disconnected from inner wisdom. We are educated to focus on that which can be seen and touched. This has led to an almost miraculous technological dexterity in our age, but at the same time we have learned to ignore and to denigrate our inner lives: Art and music become extracurricular, dreaming or ambling along a trail become subtly devalued as a “waste of time,” worshipping together in a synagogue becomes a “leisure activity,” something one squeezes in if possible.

Because we are trained to pay attention to the empirical and the physical, even the Torah can lose its spiritual dimension to our skewed perception. Thus while the Torah might still yield to us its profound teachings about interpersonal ethics, the inner life of Torah is ignored. We call Torah “a Tree of Life,” and it is an apt analogy, for a tree is both visible and invisible. The visible part of the tree — its trunk and branches, leaves, flowers and seedpods — is only alive because of the unseen network of roots that draw up moisture and life from underground. It is as though we have been trained to ignore the invisible root system and to think that all that matters is what we can see. Of course, we know that without its unseen network of sustenance, a tree will die. And when we treat the Torah as only the part we can easily see, it also dies for us, and cannot bear fruit or sustain us. By extension, when we view and measure our own lives only by our visible accomplishments, but cut ourselves off from the unseen flow of life that animates us, we also wither and dry out.

Our sages teach that the Torah we can see and hold is but a visible aspect of a cosmic tree of life. On that tree, we are the fruit, and yet we absurdly view ourselves as somehow independent creations. Our sacred task, say the sages, is to plumb the mysteries of the branches and roots from which we spring, and to connect our life force consciously to the source of life, so that we might ripen to our fullest expression of giving, creativity and goodness.

Think about this: The Torah that we hold in our hands, the teachings of justice and kindness that we cherish — none of it would have happened had our ancestors not been paying attention to their inner lives. Because of our particular myopia, we miss a truly obvious aspect of the Torah — that it is completely populated by dreamers. The Torah is a record of dreams, visions, night encounters, wilderness sojourns, and mountaintop ecstasies. We tend to reduce our reading of God’s presence in the Torah to the banality of a long-distance phone call from someone with a very loud voice. But YHVH is the source of life, the roots and trunk of our tree, and that voice is always speaking within us. The Torah only exists because of those who were able to listen within themselves, glean the wisdom of those deep encounters, and pass on what they had learned to the next generation.

Abraham has visions. He hears a call and steps out from his tent under the night sky. He contemplates the infinitude of the stars. He somehow recognizes the unity of all creation.

Jacob sleeps on the ground with a rock for a pillow, and dreams of a ladder going up to heaven. When he wakes, he doesn’t shrug it off as a dream, he draws spiritual awakening from it and understands that God is present in every place but that we are usually not aware of it. Later in his life, Jacob spends a fateful night alone by a river, and struggles all night with a mysterious energy. He does not succumb to his fears, and is thus rewarded with a new name, Yisrael, one who wrestles with God. This is our name, and we would not exist had our father Jacob not been willing to wrestle with his inner demons and not succumb.

Joseph is the quintessential dreamer of the Torah. He understood that dreams could be important messages from the unseen roots of our lives. Joseph learned to trust that the chance encounters and the passing dreams of his life might in fact contain keys to his destiny. Had he not understood the importance of his dreams, our ancestors would have died of famine, and we would not be here today.

Moses — ahh, Moses, wandering with his flock in the wilderness. Had he not turned aside from his labor to notice that burning bush, the Torah would never have been revealed. The teachings of human liberation, our legacy to the world, hinged on the ability of this shepherd to notice the world around him, to think a little bush might be worth contemplating, to have the presence to recognize that a fathomless teaching was flooding his being there in the uncharted wilderness. Moses would return with his newly liberated people to that free and open land, and he would climb a mountaintop and stay there for forty days, distilling the details of that Teaching.

Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk interprets this verse:

Vayedaber YHVH el Moshe: Aleh el hehar ve’heyey sham —
YHVH said to Moses, Go up to the mountain and be there. (Exodus 24:12)

The rabbi asks: Why did God add, “be there”? Would it not have been sufficient simply to climb the mountain? No, the Kotzker Rebbe teaches, Moses had to bring his full presence and attention to the encounter, or he would not have been able to perceive the Divine Teaching. Moses had to be there, or the Torah could not be revealed to him. Elijah the prophet, likewise, spends forty days in the wilderness before he can perceive the still small voice of God. Elisha, Elijah’s disciple, employs musicians who play for him so that he can enter ecstasy and hear God’s voice within. King David spends his nights playing the harp and singing to God. And so on.

The voice of God emerges when we are willing to pay attention in such a way that demands nothing but is curious and interested in everything. The sense of serendipity, of basherte, mysterious guidance, is present for us when we can contemplate without grasping and receive with openness.

This past summer I was blessed with an experience that reconnected me to this beautiful and life-sustaining truth. I went backpacking for a week in the High Sierra Mountains of California, accompanied by my two brothers. It was a priceless blessing that we all carved out the time to take this magnificent trip together, and our relationship will be forever informed by the joy we shared. I had not backpacked since before my children were born, and approached the prospect with trepidation. We began in Yosemite Valley and climbed up thousands of feet carrying packs that were too heavy — but each day got a little easier as we worked ourselves into shape. As I walked, and my mind calmed, I remembered what it is like just to be. I sang to myself on the trail. I slept on the ground. I began to remember my dreams. I sat by mountain streams and cried. I enjoyed every chance encounter, and watched unexpected, deep connections emerge with other hikers. I spoke with my ancestors, and with God. I touched the earth, and I remembered how to be in the world.

Since returning, my outer life is unchanged, but my inner life is more alive than it has been for a long time. I can tap the quiet joy of the wilderness and remember its transformative beauty. This year, like Abraham, I will remember to look up at the night sky. Like Jacob, I will spend nights alone, when I can, by the river. Like Joseph, I will remember my dreams. Like Moses, I will climb the mountain and be touched by the wonder and beauty of God’s creation, and I will know that I, too, am a goodly fruit on that Tree of Life. I will sing, and dance, and make my life so juicy that this crass world will not be able to dry me out — to the contrary, I will become more like a verdant and shady tree, with my roots struck deep, and my branches spreading, so that others might take shelter in my shade.

Of course, I will forget, and get sucked back into the prevailing insanity of our overstressed lives. May the wisdom of Torah, Shabbat and the holy days, my family and this holy community all serve as signposts and reminders to me that there is more to life than meets the eye. Who is to say that our inner lives, our creativity, our search for understanding, our silent prayers are not sustaining the world as surely as our outward acts of righteousness, kindness, and caring? Shimon haTzaddik said long ago, Al shlosha dvarim haolam omed: al haTorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al gemilut chasadim — the world stands on three things: Torah, the ongoing search for wisdom; avodah, prayer and contemplation; and gemilut chasadim, acts of loving-kindness. That is to say, our world requires balance, like a three-legged stool. Take one leg away, and stability is lost. We are wobbling a lot in our world today, both as individuals and collectively. We must not forget to nourish our inner life.

The world needs us, but we do not serve the greater good by sacrificing the life of our souls in our desperation to make a difference. As you contemplate the coming year and your goals to make our world a better place, remember to pay attention to your inner life. Touch the earth. Tend your garden. Listen to your dreams. Let music nourish you. Take time deep in nature. Keep a journal. Play with a baby. Make space for chance encounters. Make art. Make love that is loving. Let your tears flow. Talk to God. Pray. Celebrate Shabbat. Sit on the beach, or by a stream, or on a mountaintop, and let life in. This is profoundly important, in ways we barely understand. Tending to our inner lives is tending the roots underground that sustain our visible lives, and that make life worth living.

May each of us, in the coming year, be our own unique embodiment of the Tree of Life, with roots dug deep, arms reaching for the sun, offering shelter and sustenance to everyone and everything we love. And when we are in need, may we rest in the shelter of each other.

—Kol Nidre 5766/2005