May 22, 2019

Working the Path

Most good people want to become better people. The slightly less good people just want other people to become better people. Few people actually have a plan, for themselves or others. The Jewish tradition offers many such plans — systems for moral and spiritual improvement.

I don’t think most people suffer unnecessarily because they had less-than-optimal parents. That widespread misfortune might be a factor, but people suffer unnecessarily primarily because they don’t think clearly and they don’t manage their feelings well. For example, many people think (perhaps unconsciously) that the best way to improve a spouse or a child is to criticize them. A bit of rational reflection can correct that misguided approach fairly quickly. There are spiritual practices that can reduce the feelings of anger and frustration that usually prompt the criticism.

Reduced anger and frustration? There’s a better person already.

Other people not only want to become better in the moral sense, they also want to grow spiritually. That word, “spirituality,” connotes many things: Centeredness. Courageousness. Kindness. Reflectiveness. A sense of the transcendent. The word is a constellation of many related ideas.

Inner-life work in the Jewish tradition, and in all traditions, holds that there are better and worse ways to think, feel, speak and behave. If we gain some mastery over the inner life, we not only will act righteously, but we also will be on a path toward spiritual well-being.

There are many terms in the Jewish tradition referring to moral and spiritual growth. I like the words “work” and “path” to describe this striving. Inner-life work is the path, and the path requires inner-life work. (Hence, “working the path.”) If you work the path, everything gets better. Maybe it won’t get better in the way you imagined it, but still, it will be better.

Maybe it won’t get better in the way you imagined it, but still, it will be better.

The inner-life side of the Jewish tradition is ancient, rich and varied. As this tradition is carried through time, new interpretations are added, and every now and then new teachings are formed. This spiritual side of our traditions might not be a walk on the wild side, but it can come close to that. As you walk on that side — the inside — you might come across some insight or teaching that both destabilizes your ego self and adds lucidity to your soul.

Think of the confessional on Yom Kippur. You’d never come up with that by yourself, reading a litany of confessions, most of which have nothing to do with you personally. Until a wise guy utters the confession of mocking, and suddenly sees something about himself that he does not want to see.

OK, I was that wise guy. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue. On the High Holy Days, we teenagers were assigned to sit in the social hall. At some particularly long, tiresome point in the service, we ducked out and went to the local supermarket to buy munchies. One of the old-timers saw us as we tried to get back in through the parking lot. He saw our spoils and said to us that we should not be spending money on Rosh Hashanah. “It’s OK,” I said triumphantly, “we stole it.” My remark got a great laugh from my friends, and I was immensely pleased with myself — until Yom Kippur, that is, when I came across that “mocking parents and teachers” line. I thought something like, “So this prayer-book is actually looking right up, at and through me.”

Busted. Our tradition caught me.

It still catches me.

The time we are in now, the seven-week “counting of the Omer,” has that quality of “looking at you and through you” as well. The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot are devoted to contemplating one kabbalistic quality per week. These qualities (such as love, justice, truth, beauty, etc.) name contours of our souls that produce the greatest meaning and some of the greatest pain in our lives.

For example, in that first-week contemplation of Hesed (roughly: lovingkindness), I recalled a truth learned long ago: Some of the greatest pain we suffer and cause in life is from not acting lovingly when we should have.

How can we love better and defend our hearts when others don’t? Stay tuned.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California.