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Brokenness and Wholeness - 02/10/2023


In my practical spirituality class, someone first described herself as neither religious nor spiritual. Then she shared  an experience in which she finds herself connected with community and finds a sense of being beyond the self. She said that the songs at the end of Yom Kippur are especially meaningful to her.

This leads to a question. How can someone who loves a key element of the liturgy think she isn’t religious? And how can someone who is transported by the experience of being in community and singing together think she isn’t spiritual? Something is going badly wrong when this happens.

She wasn’t the only one. As we went around the room people described a variety of experiences of meaning and awe that included Jewish ritual moments. I had expected things like being in nature or with loved ones to be the examples, but I was wrong. Some find candle lighting on Shabbat to be deeply meaningful. Others find being together with family on Friday night a transformative experience. Others actually said sitting in services!! And yet many of these same people said they were neither religious nor spiritual.

We have allowed ourselves to narrow the notion of being spiritual to a set of imagined meanings and people and we know we aren’t that. We have let others define what being religious is for us, and we then feel excluded. Put another way, we have imagined we are broken, when in fact it is the words themselves that have been broken. We are whole; it is the concepts that are damaged.

It is told of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, that he once stayed with an innkeeper who could barely even pronounce the prayers let alone understand them. Every day he would just read everything because he didn’t know what was for which day and when. As he welcomed this knowledgeable and spiritual guest, the innkeeper asked the Baal Shem Tov to help mark up his prayerbook with notes telling him when and how to say the words.

The next morning, the innkeeper awoke excited to say the words exactly as God had intended. Yet just as he opened his book, a gust of wind came and blew all the notes to the ground. The innkeeper saw the Baal Shem Tov through his window in the far distance continuing on his journey. The man grabbed his coat and leapt out to catch him.

The Baal Shem Tov arrived at a rushing river. He pulled out his handkerchief, placed it in the flowing waters, and strode across. After all, he was the Baal Shem Tov, a great miracle worker. The innkeeper arrived at the river and looked down at the bridge and knew he would lose sight of this righteous man if he went to the bridge. So he shrugged, pulled out his handkerchief, and similarly walked across the river.

When he caught up to the Baal Shem Tov, initially the Baal Shem Tov was annoyed. He didn’t want to be delayed. Then he paused and looked at the man and the river. He asked: “How did you cross the river?” The innkeeper replied, “I saw what you did, so I did the same!”

The Baal Shem Tov was amazed and said, “You keep doing what you have been doing…”

And so I say to all of us: We are religious and spiritual. No one else gets to tell us what those terms mean. And: we need to value what we are doing and remember we are created in the Divine Image.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi David Booth



Tue, September 26 2023 11 Tishrei 5784