“Spiritual work” is a strange phrase. What kind of “work” is it that doesn’t result in a finished product, or even a paycheck? Work which no one can see you doing? Work which doesn’t even have a concrete goal?
“Spiritual work” is the purpose of the High Holidays, of which communal prayer is only one, small part. And because the results are so amorphous, so intangible, it is also the most easily overlooked part of the holiday experience. We can hear and say prayers; we can sing songs; we can see the Torah, the Ark, the shofar, even the bread we cast away during Tashlich. But if the holidays have ever seemed meaningless to you, it may be because you did not engage in the spiritual work which they call us to do.
From Selichot through Simchat Torah, our tradition challenges us to do the difficult, elusive work of the spirit… the soul. Each prayer, each song, each ritual is designed to present another possibility to us: another possibility of how we could see the world, the people around us, our Jewish tradition and, most important, ourselves.
You don’t have to be a rabbi to do this. (Sometimes I think it’s hardest for rabbis – and cantors – because we have to concentrate so hard on all the choreography of the rituals.) All it takes is the willingness to try something new, to learn something new.
How would you begin, if you chose to give a shot at your own spiritual work? Below are two readings which we will encounter in our services this year. Each speaks in its own language; the first modern, the second hundreds of years old. Yet both speak to us about imperfection – the imperfection of others, and the imperfections (plural) we find in ourselves. Because it is in our imperfections that we find our humanity – and our spiritual work.
The first challenges us not simply to tolerate imperfections, but to accept them as an absolutely essential part of life.
What an extraordinary gift it is – what a blessing, what a miracle
to have been raised by imperfect parents who did their very best:
to share our life with a partner no more flawed than we are;
to count as a friend one who understands and accepts us most of the time.
How brave, how hard it is to be “good enough” in our ties to one another:
to give, even when we’re exhausted; to love faithfully;
to receive with grace the love imperfectly offered to us.
Can this night set us free from the tyranny of expectations?
Can this night release us from fantasies impossible to fulfill?
We resolve this night to embrace the practice of forgiveness:
to forgive others who fail to be all we hoped they would be;
to forgive ourselves when we fall short of what others hoped we would be.
We declare this night that we will cherish goodness wherever it is found,
and open ourselves to the gifts that are before us.
The second, from long ago, presents even more of a challenge. It calls us to listen carefully to what we say about others – not simply because we should be kind to them, but because our words tell us more about ourselves than we are usually willing to acknowledge.
A Teaching of the Baal Shem Tov:
Your fellow human being is a mirror for you.
If there is love and compassion in your soul,
you will see the goodness in others.
If you see a blemish in another,
it is your own imperfection you encounter.
Take careful note of the flaws you see in others.
This is a lesson for you:
they are your own flaws set before you,
a reminder of your spiritual work.
As we prepare to begin a New Year, I hope each of us will accept Judaism’s challenge to ask ourselves this question: “What is my ‘spiritual work’ this year?”
I wish you a sweet, healthy and good New Year. Let’s get to work!
Rabbi Don Weber
(Readings above from Mishkan HaNefesh © 2015, Central Conference of American Rabbis)
© 2016, Temple Rodeph Torah