Walking through Central Park with his students, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to stop now and then and cry out, “Look at the trees!” All conversation would pause, all serious matters being discussed put on hold and for the moment all that mattered was the trees. Maybe they were pink and budding with spring flowers. Maybe it was winter and their bare branches looked striking against a gray Manhattan sky. Whatever it was, Rabbi Heschel sometimes needed to stop just for the trees.
His daughter Susannah credits this story to Rabbi Heschel’s sense of radical amazement, his ability to let life take him by surprise. For years I envisioned the theologian as bookish, buried in dusty pages of text and paying little attention to everyday matters. By contrast, those who knew him well say Rabbi Heschel successfully wove together his introspection with grounded reality. He could both reflect on lofty conceptions of God and appreciate the dirt paths he walked in Central Park. He cared for what was behind, in front, within and above him—he was, one might say, the model of a multidimensional Jew.
Living within multiple dimensions is no easy task. It’s hard to notice our surroundings when we get caught up in thoughts, in the worlds within us. It’s difficult to remember whom we face—the forces that are bigger than us and our everyday lives—when we’re focused on our futures and the road that lies ahead.
And since Rabbi Heschel’s time, living a multidimensional life has not gotten any easier.
On a typical Friday afternoon at my house, you’ll find my parents preparing dinner while answering emails while simultaneously dialing in to a conference call. Science Daily reports that 59% of Americans regularly engage in media multitasking—using two or more different types of technology at the same time, such as surfing the Internet while watching TV. Multitasking makes multidimensional living especially complex. How can someone keep in mind what is within and around them when constantly distracted by the different activities they are trying to undertake all at the same time?
Fortunately, Judaism does offer frameworks that encourage multidimensional living, and prevent us from getting so caught up in the: “what is right now?” that we forget what is around, behind, above, ahead, and within.
Shabbat—regardless of one’s level of observance—is a powerful place to start. Rabbi Heschel conceived of Shabbat as an opportunity to turn from the world of creation to the creation of the world. In essence, we are being asked to stop regular activities and inhabit the dimensions we usually ignore—whether that means looking above through prayer, within through undistracted thought, or around at the community and spaces that surround us. It gives us the opportunity to ask the questions and explore the dimensions that we don’t have time for day-to-day.
It used to make me uncomfortable when I spoke with observant Jews who explained that they observe Shabbat or fulfill mitzvoth out a sense of chiyuv, obligation. It seemed to imply to me that my community wanted to keep kosher, wrap tefillen, and do hesed not out of a genuine desire to connect with God but out of a sense of fear and desire to fulfill expectations. But on the other hand, chiyuv too can be a powerful means of multidimensional living. Chiyuv is essentially a means of accountability. It is a sense of fear and awe that reminds us that our actions don’t simply live in the dimension of the present—they are deeply connected to what is above us, what is within us, what is ahead of us, and whom we face.
Sometimes I wonder if Rabbi Heschel would have noticed the trees if he had been texting on his iPhone. Heschel lived before the time of Steve Jobbs. But for members of the cult of Apple, the commandments that guide Jewish life—particularly our experience of Shabbat—can be construed as an effort to encourage multidimensional living, to remind us that our everyday actions can be linked to a bigger picture.email print