Searching for Meaning By Eve Levy
While packing away the Seder plate and Passover dishes this past week, my husband, who happens to be a rabbi, asked me, “How did you grow over Passover?”
“Grow?” I asked. “You mean more than my waistline from all those yummy macaroons I baked?”
Guilt washed over me as I fumbled for a decent answer. I silently fumed inside. The nerve he had to ask me such a question! It’s not like I had much time to sit down and learn something inspiring before or during the holiday. With all the late Seder and holiday nights, even getting to shul before Adon Olam at the end of services was a longshot.
It wasn’t like I was twiddling my thumbs. I served many delicious meals to dozens of hungry guests over the 8-day holiday. I kept my home clean and my kids entertained, safe and happy. And, he wanted me to grow spiritually on top of that?! What does he think I am, a super woman? Deep down, I knew the question was not asked in an accusing manner. My husband was not judging me. It was my own Jewish guilt bubbling up like an overflowing pot of matzah-ball soup.
In my mind, I pondered the question. It gave me very little rest. Where did I go wrong? Did I take the opportunities for spiritual growth I had hoped to take? Did I tap into the essence of the holiday and use it as a way to connect to my Creator? Or, did I miss the boat?
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Acharei Mot, and in the following Torah portion, Parshat Kedoshim, we read about holiness. Sanctity. Spirituality. We have an obligation to become holy because G-d is holy, and we need to try and emulate G-d. As it says, “Veiyisem li kedoshim, ki kadosh, Ani Hashem (You shall be holy for me, for I Hashem am Holy)” (Vayikra: 20:26).
G-d gave the Jewish people the mitzvot. The root for the word mitzvah is tzav (the Hebrew letters tzadek and vav), which comes from the Aramaic word tzavta, which means connector. The 613 mitzvot are not merely commandments, but rather opportunities to connect to G-d. Through these mitzvot, we can grow and achieve new levels of holiness.
I once heard Adrienne Gold Davis pose the question, “What does it mean to be spiritual?” Are people who do yoga and meditate daily considered spiritual? I definitely admire them! They surely are at peace with themselves and the world around them in a beautiful way. Adrienne said that the word spiritual is made up of two words, spirit and ritual. We need both to be a spiritual Jew. The spirit fills us up with good feelings and meaning, and the ritual grounds us.
We may not always feel spiritual. That’s OK. Some of the mitzvot are referred to as chukim, which are hard mitzvot for us to fully comprehend. We still do them as best we can, regardless. The bottom line is that G-d, who created us and knows us better than any human does, gave us these mitzvot to help us enable our souls to achieve their purpose.
We cannot be spiritual Jews by closing ourselves off from the world. We don’t find monks or celibate people in Judaism. The exalted Kohen Hagadol (High Priest), who would atone for the entire nation in the Kodesh Kadoshim (the Holy of Holies) on Yom Kippur, even he had to be married to qualify to serve in that high spiritual role. Although it would be nice to one day climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or float on Crater Lake in complete silence and tranquility, that is not what G-d meant by being holy. Being holy means surrounding ourselves with people, and working on our relationships. Holy is being considerate, loving and understanding of others. G-d gave the Torah to us imperfect human beings, and not to the angels for a good reason.
After some thinking, I came back to my husband with an answer. “I know I didn’t make it to synagogue too much over the holiday because I was tired from all the late-night Seders and meals. The kids needed extra snuggles in my bed each morning. But, it was a beautiful holiday! I enjoyed all the many special Passover mitzvot. I ate the matzah, drank the wine, leaned, chomped down the maror … but most importantly, I made beautiful memories for my children, and I was able to add a link in the chain of tradition with joy and love. I worked on freeing myself from those things that hold me back – perfectionism and wanting to be in control. I worked on my patience. And most of all, I was able to relax and enjoy the holiday surrounded by so many people! I did grow spiritually after all.”
In the upcoming two Torah portions, we see how practical it is to get on that path to holiness and sanctity. G-d, in His infinite wisdom, has given us tools in the guise of 613 mitzvot to become better and more like G-d. While it is important to always search for deeper meaning and understanding in our personal Jewish observance, it is also good to know that just the act of a simple mitzvah is a powerful way of connection with our Creator.
Some are blessed to have the headspace and wisdom to turn everything Jewish into a spiritually uplifting experience, and that must be awesome. For the rest of us Jews, it is OK to just do our best, try to always be in the moment, have the right kavanah (intensions), and do the act of a mitzvah, any mitzvah, just for the sake of G-d. Our souls will soar from this experience. And that, in my opinion, is where real growth is found.
Eve Levy is a JWRP City Leader from Portland, Oregon.