Finding our way back to our soul: what is our spiritual address?
There is a story that has become part of the lore of the Rabbinical School admissions process at JTS. Years ago, when the famous, brilliant, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was still alive he would sit on the admissions committee and interview the candidates. You can imagine the anxiety this might cause a young person applying to school. But the committee, forgetting about the awe that a young man might be in, when seeing Rabbi Heschel, actually decided to have Rabbi Heschel ask the first question, since he had spent time in Cincinatti when he first came to the states and this young man was from Cincinnati. The young man walked in and sat down nervously. Rabbi Heschel turned to the man, introduced himself, and calmly asked, where are you from? Knowing that it was Rabbi Heschel who had asked him the question, the man began to sweat. Where am I from?-he began to answer not with the word “Cincinatti” but rather a lofty answer about his place in the universe and his spiritual beginnings. Listening patiently, Rabbi Heschel softly answer, thank you, I just wanted to let you know, that like you, I am from Cincinnati, but I like your answer as well!
While Rabbi Heschel was just trying to ease the young man’s anxiety, what the story tells us is something much deeper. That being able to answer where we are from, really can be about, WHO ARE YOU?
Where does our soul reside? To think about the journey of our soul we should also think about our bodies and where we have lived as individuals, in community, and as part of a people. But to understand who we are, we can begin by thinking about where we have been.
Let’s start with Abraham. Abraham smashed the idols in his father’s store and heard God’s command to lech lecha-to go forth to a land that God will reveal.
Abraham, took his family, his servants, and his belongings and began to search for a place where he could be both physically and spiritually at home. Yes, in Ur, he was physically home, but from the moment he smashed his father’s idols, he knew he was only in his house, not his home and now it was the time to create his home.
I am not this morning urging you to smash idols and to move away-rather let’s begin to imagine, can you search for your soul and make you feel centered, and at home? Though…if there are idols that needs smashing, these are the times to think about it. How will your journey allow you to live the life this year that you want to live?
Since the time of Abraham, the Jews have been on a physical and a spiritual journey. Jews have never been in just one place. In our daily prayers we pray to God to bring us from the four corners of the earth in peace. We wrap ourselves tightly in our tallit and we kiss our tzizit in order to remember the value of mitzvot and how disperse the Jewish population really is. Following Abraham we know that Jacob went on a journey and encountered God in a dream-it was only after he woke up that he realized that he was in a sacred space. This is an important message to us-we need to take the signs that we see and act on them. Just as Jacob names that spot BEIT EL, the house of God, as we think about our spiritual residence. Moses was also on a spiritual journey. From Goshen as a baby, to the palace in Egypt, to the wilderness of Midian, to the burning bush, Moses was a seeker. And he knew that when he encountered God at the burning bush that he was standing on holy ground and so he even knew to remove his shoes.As the Torah continued and the story of our people evolved we saw how the Israelites created a temporary sacred space with the tabernacle. They continued in the land of Israel. And over the past 2000 years Jews have invented and reinvented ways of making their houses, their homes. Jews have learned how to imbue places with spirituality and then more importantly, take that spirituality with them if they had to move. We have found ourselves in all parts of the world.
Here in the the openness of the United States we are fortunate that we can live openly and proudly. But, have we continued? Have we made sure that our homes, are filled with Yiddishkeit so that we know who we truly are?
Let’s look inside ourselves, and see what it is that moves us. Let me ask you-How often do you take a “selfie” on your phone?
You take it, you look at it, you delete it, you take another one till it looks better? This year, instead of selfies, I want you to take “soul-fies.”
Now is the time to look inside ourselves, and ask ourselves, what do I need? Rabbi Naomi Levy in Einstein and the Rabbi offers 4 questions (very Jewish) to think about as you take your own soulfie:
Levy says, if we learn to take a soulfie, it may very well transform our lives. Taking a soul-fie puts us on a journey, home.
Let’s start by challenging ourselves to engage in more ritual, or more learning, in more active Jewish living. We can think about how we eat, how we grief, how we love, and how we pray.
We live here in New York City, We have another home as well. We have the spiritual and physical home land of Israel. Israel is home. Until 1948, the notion of returning home was only thought of as a dream. No one imagined that today, 70 years later, Israel would be a modern, vibrant state committed to serving as a Jewish home and a home for the Jews. This home, like many, has gone through stages of building, rebuilding, expanding, and contracting. But the essence of Israel remains the same in our heart. Over the past 70 years Jews world-wide and Israelis in particular have been able to take the items that they have been carrying on their journey and create their house and their home. We direct our prayers towards Israel, and we end our Seders with ‘next year in Jerusalem.”
Israel is as an extension of our spiritual home-We need to support our people by emotionally, financially, and physically supporting the land. There are congregants amongst us who have served in the Israeli army, who went to school in Israel, and who have lived there.. They have been our ambassadors but we must learn about Israel for ourselves in order to not only support Israel but realize that when we are asked the question, ‘where are you from,” part of our answer will be in Israel.As the Psalmist said, if i forget thee oh Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.
As we continue to explore the question, where do you spiritually reside, let me offer you something that doesn’t require a mortgage and it doesn’t require you to move in permanently-and barely requires you to travel. I would like the synagogue and our congregation to be seen as part of your spiritual address. As you look inward for your soul, know that your soul has a Jewish place to express itself.
But at the end of the day, it isn’t just about the state of Israel, or the synagogue, or your apartment, it is about you, me-each and every one of us
And so we need to ask ourselves, where do I want to be located? Am I grounded in my physical, emotional, and my spiritual life? How can I get there?
It requires us looking inward. It requires us to take more soul-fies than we have ever taken before.
In Rabbi Naomi Levy’s book she writes, (p.49)-”what does the soul want “The book of Ecclesiastes warns us “all the labor of man is for his mouth, yet the soul is not fulfilled.’ we earn a living and feed our egos and surround ourselves with stuff but we remain hungry because we don’t understand what our souls need.” She continues “The Rabbis compare the body’s relationship to the soul, to a peasant who marries a princess. The poor peasant tries to impress the princess by bringing her beautiful things but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t want gifts, she wants love…Levy writes: .Know who you are. Don’t set your sights too low. Know who you are. Not the title that is printed on your stationary. It’s not written on your diploma. It’s not listed on your resume. It’s imprinted on your soul with vision, clarity, expansiveness.” (Einstein and the Rabbi, 269)
There is value to knowing who you are.
The following story about a little boy inspired by Harold Friedman.
Once, when I was a little boy, I got lost in the May company, in the handkerchief department. My mother told me to stay close while she shopped for presents, but I let go of my mother’s skirt and went to look at the raindrops falling and when I turned around my mother was gone, and I was lost.
The sales ladies were very nice. But I didn’t know any of them. And I couldn’t stop crying. I just wanted to find my mom. The manager was nice to, but I didn’t know him. Finally, the manager bent down and asked, little boy, what is your name? Dan Segal. My name is Dan Siegel.
And then something wonderful happened. I didn’t feel like crying anymore. I felt good because I knew my name and I could say it. I knew my name and i wasn’t frightened.
I knew my name so I wasn’t lost.
I was somebody, because I knew my name.
The other day I saw a boy get lost right in our classroom at school. He knew his name alright. And he knew his address. But he was as lost like I was lost in the May company.
We were studying about America. And Miss Statler, our teacher, went around and asked the children about what homes, what countries their grandparents, or great grandparents had come from. The boy next to me said something about Holland. The girl on the other side said something about Ireland. When Miss Statler called on David, the boy who was lost, he just sat there.
David, you must have something interesting to tell, you are Jewish right?
I looked at David and knew right away that he felt like I felt in the May Company…Miss Statler went on and called on me. I guess I started with what the word Jewish means-that it comes from Judah, and that he was one of the sons of Jacob. Then I started to share a little bit that I had learned in synagogue-like getting rid of idols, and fighting to be free from the Egyptians, and following the 10 commandments, and that Sukkot was like thanksgiving.
I probably talked too long but then I realized that I felt like i did when i knew my name in the May Company. I felt Good.
So now, I realize, can a person get lost even if they know their name?
Well, maybe there is another name that you call yourself, inside. My name is Jewish. That is my inside name. And you have no idea how good it feels to know your name. You can’t be frightened when you know your name.
You can’t get lost when you know your name.
You are somebody, when you know your name.
How true is this story? When we know our name, when we really know who we are, when we feel grounded, we are ok. It doesn’t mean we don’t have improving to do, but we know what it feels like to feel secure. To feel at home.
But we know that there are times in our lives when we need to re-position ourselves. Just like we need to re-orient a GPS to make sure we are heading in the correct direction-making sure we have the correct borough in the system, so too, we need to make sure our stated address is what it means to be.
Because, believe it or not, even God once tried to reach out to someone, and couldn’t find them. It was all the way back in the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve were hiding, and God called out, Ayeka, where are you? Asked by God to Adam and Eve, we hear this question. But how can this be? Did God really not know where they were? As Rabbi David Wolpe (Floating Takes Faith) taught, “We realize this isn’t a question of location. Rather, it is a question of spiritual geography-Adam, understanding the importance of God’s questions, answer that he was frightened, so he had been hiding. That question is not only the first question, it is also the eternal question. At each moment in our lives, this question is addressed to us: Where are you? Where are you spiritually? Where are you morally? What have you done with your life and what are you doing with it today? Are you proud of your conduct in the garden? The question is a single word-Ayecha. The echoes of the question are endless. Ayecha?”
Like in the Heschel story that I told earlier, there are sometimes easy answers and there are sometimes complex answers. Finding your soul and therefore your spiritual home is not something that can be done overnight.
Imagine if we spent this year working together to create the spirituality that we are looking for, to turn our houses into homes, to turn our connection with Israel from abstract to real, to be a part of the synagogue, and most importantly, to take a journey to our soul, would we be able to answer:
Who are we?
Where are we?
And What is our true soul-fie?