Rosh Hashanah 5777/2016: “The Spiritual Path”
By Rabbinic Pastor David Daniel Klipper
I was talking with a good friend the other day, and in the course of the conversation she told me about someone who had been a Catholic priest and then had gone on to study Buddhism in China. “He’s a very spiritual person,” she said. She meant it as a compliment to him and I took it as one. But it started me thinking about the words ‘spiritual and spirituality’ and how we use them. Often they are said with a positive connotation and in compared to the words ‘religious or religiosity’ which sometimes have a negative connotation. Spirituality is open and unbounded; it involves an individual getting in touch with his deeper self, or his higher self, or connecting with the spirit of the universe in some way. Some people see religiosity, on the other hand, as something rigid, a fixed way of looking at things, often with a triumphalistic (“my way is the best if not the only way”) attitude.
One of the fastest growing ways people identify their faith in the United States is often abbreviated as SBNR, which stands for “spiritual but not religious.” So again there is this clear distinction.
People who are on a journey of discovery or who are keenly seeking after meaning at a deep level are sometimes considered to be “on the spiritual path.” We don’t use the phrase ‘religious path’ in conventional language; and if I heard the phrase it might signify someone in a monastery who was seeking ordination in a specific faith tradition, not the broad and open journey intimated by the words “spiritual path.” M. Scott Peck, when he wrote the book, The Road Less Traveled, subtitled it, A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. He didn’t say “religious growth”; he said “spiritual growth.” Jack Kornfield wrote a book whose subtitle is How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path.
How many of you would characterize yourself as spiritual? How many of you would characterize yourself as religious? [Odds are that more of you characterize yourself as “spiritual” than “religious.”]
Another word that is used a lot these days in these type of discussions is the word mindfulness. Being mindful is the goal of many schools of meditation, and meditation in turn is often associated with spirituality. Meditation and mindfulness are also concepts that have found their way into psychotherapy, allowing therapists to include spirituality into their work without getting into theological issues about God, which has been traditionally excluded from psychotherapeutic study. How many of you here have meditated, at least a few times? How many of you have heard about the concept of mindfulness?
So today we are discussing the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which is the Akedah, sometimes known as the “binding of Isaac.” You probably know the outlines of the story: God commands Abraham to bring his son Isaac to a mountain to sacrifice him. They travel three days, they leave their servants behind and climb the mountain and Isaac asks about the sacrifice. Abraham tells him that God will provide the sacrifice. They get to the spot, Abraham binds Isaac to the wood and is about to stab him when an angel calls out his name, “Abraham, Abraham” and he responds “Hineni” (“Here I am”). God tells him not to sacrifice Isaac and instead to sacrifice a ram whose horns got caught in some bushes, and Abraham sacrifices the ram; then the two of them come down from the mountain.
So here’s my question: Was Abraham walking the spiritual path? And what can we learn from this story to help us get a better sense of our own spiritual or religious journeys?
This paresha is one of the most frequently analyzed portions in Torah. There are commentaries about how admirable Abraham is, in that he was even willing to sacrifice that which was most dear to him, his son, when commanded to by God.
There are other commentators who think that Abraham was reprehensible for even contemplating the idea of sacrificing his son. In today’s world, what he did would certainly be considered child abuse, and possibly subject to criminal prosecution as endangering a minor. Some think that God is reprehensible for making such a heinous request, while others have found in the language evidence that God never intended for Isaac to be sacrificed, and that Abraham misinterpreted the language. I don’t intend to walk us through each of these and potentially many other commentaries but rather want to focus on this question as to whether Abraham was walking the spiritual path or not.
In this discussion, I’d like us to take the story metaphorically, rather than literally. At the beginning of the 20th Century, a philosopher named William James wrote a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience. (I wonder whether it would have been called the “Varieties of Spiritual Experience” if it was written today.) Part of what James discusses in this book are the various ways that mystics have had experiences of God, and that there seem to be different ways that different people have experienced. However, one thing that these mystics have in common with one another is that all of their experiences are intensely felt in the present moment.
Mystical experience is not about the past or the future; it is about being in the moment. Whether we are talking about the bliss of devekut (a Hasidic term for connecting completely with God in the midst of prayer), a Buddhist experiencing pure mindfulness in meditation or a Sufi ecstatic with dance and chant, they are all non-intellectual, in-the-moment experiences.
At the start of Abraham’s story, in Exodus 12:1, God tells Avram (which was his name at that point) to “leave [his] country, [his] kindred and [his] father’s house unto a land that I will show [him].” Metaphorically, Avram is being told to leave his past behind. If you are going to a place you’ve never been, it is important that you pay attention to what is going on. So if there is a spiritual path (or what Joseph Campbell called the hero’s journey or pathways to bliss), part of it means that we give up our past.
This may sound simple, but it is not easy. Most of us have had experiences in our past that have a major influence on who we are and how we behave. For one person it might be, “When I was a child I was taught that children should be seen and not heard, and now I have trouble asserting myself because I unconsciously feel threatened when I need to put myself forward.” Or for someone else: “I had a narcissistic mother who pretended it was about me but it really was all about her and so now it is hard for me to trust people who say that they love me.” And so on.
Anyone who has gone back to the home of their parents as an adult and found themselves reliving patterns from childhood can attest to the power of these experiences. [“Why is it that I’m 48 years old but here I feel like I’m eight again?”] These patterns may no longer be functional, but they persist in our consciousness and can prevent us from having accurate perceptions or making the best choices now in the present.
Fast forward through the part of the story in the paresha. What is Avraham (his new name) being asked to give up now? He is being asked to sacrifice his son. Metaphorically, what is his son? Doesn’t his son represent his dreams of the future? What does God promise Avraham? That his children will be a numerous as the stars. How many times have you seen people who have created successful lives within a geographic area uproot and move across the country just so that they can be closer to their children and grandchildren? Children are our hopes for the future. I have a friend with a serious illness and the thought of not living to see her grandchildren grow up is incredibly painful for her.
Also, don’t we all spend great time and efforts trying to influence or control our future? How many of us haven’t daydreamed about a better future? How many of us have ever said, “Well, if only THIS (fill in the blank) would happen, then life would be good. For some people the THIS might be a certain amount of money, for others it might be a particular job or car, for some it could be proving someone wrong about some perception about them, for still others it would be having a certain mate. If you’re Jewish clergy, sometimes the THIS means “after the Jewish holidays so I can take a rest.”
My point is that we are strongly impacted by our attempts to create a certain future, and these attempts can get in the way of being in the present. How many of us have been angry with someone, and rehearsed the conversation we would like to have with that person while driving home in our car? When we arrive home, we have no memory of the drive and couldn’t name one thing we had seen on the road. We were in our fantasy, not our present.
So there Avraham is, on the mountain, with his son tied up, holding the knife, about to stab his son. Then God calls his name, and he says “Hineni.” In that Hineni, he has a moment of being completely awake. He has a moment of enlightenment, if you will. In that moment he is not thinking about the past or dwelling in the future. He is 100% there. If he couldn’t have woken up, he would have sacrificed his son based on what he was told in the past and how he thought that would impact his future. He couldn’t have heard the universe (of God) calling his name, trying to get his attention, to see what he was doing and responding appropriately right at that moment.
So I submit that Avraham was walking the spiritual path, in that he was able to free himself from the crippling influence of the past and the equally crippling influence of the hoped-for future, to live in the moment and take right action.
So what does this have to do with us? Rabbi Shohama and Rabbi David want me to make sure to talk about hope, so here it is. One insight that I take from this is that the spiritual path isn’t a path at all. I think the concept of a spiritual path is a kind of misperception, because it implies that there is a here, and there is a somewhere else, and that we are here and on the way to that somewhere else. This is a conception of a spiritual path that lives in the domain of the past and the future, not the present. This is an illusion. Jacob said, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.” This is always true. God is always in this place, wherever we are, because God is always only in the present, and the present is where we need to be to know God.
So I suggest that instead of there being a spiritual path, there is a spiritual dot. The dot is right where we are – right here, right now. I have a piece of glass on my desk at home that says three words: “Now… Here… This.” When we are fully conscious of being on that dot, we are awake. We have let go of the past and the future and can appreciate the present.
But I also know that it often does feel like we start in one place and we progress forward spiritually as we work our practices, whatever they may be. So if the thought of the spiritual dot feels too limiting or doesn’t work for you, then I imagine you to think of yourself as walking the spiritual corkscrew. You continue to proceed forward, but in fact you are simply circling the same place, just getting deeper and deeper in your approach to it. And at the end of the corkscrew, what is there? A point, the spiritual dot.
And the hope is that we can wake up at any time. It doesn’t only happen at the moment when, like Abraham, we are about to sacrifice our most cherished dreams for the future on the dead altar of the past. It can happen now, ten minutes from now, ten days from now. And you can wake up, and fall back asleep, and wake up again, and fall back asleep again, and that is called spiritual practice.
You may ask, “How will I know if I am awake?” and my first response is that when you are awake one of the aspects of life you are awake to is your own state of being awake. However, other aspects of being awake are being aware of everything, not struggling with anything, not living in hope of how it will be better in the future, not trying to prove or disprove something from your past, but when you can simply take a deep breath, feel the air go into your lungs, and have it all be okay at that moment. Whatever it is that is okay. It is not necessarily dramatic. The main title of the book by Jack Kornfield that had the subtitle about the spiritual path is called, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.
But even if we are doing the laundry, the more awake we are, the more loving, thoughtful, gentle and caring we can be. The more we can make this world a better place, corny as that sounds. The more we can be our highest and best selves, and call others to live out of their highest and best selves as well.
So my prayer for this year for each of us is that we can spend time being spiritually woken up. And may that experience of awakening give life a richness and sense of fulfillment, and may we be grateful for the opportunity of sharing this beautiful life and planet with one another.