Ein od milvado, there is nothing but God (Deuteronomy 4:35). Everything is God. Each of us is a unique aspect of the divine, and with each of us, God explores the concept of “more than One.” Our purpose is to realize what makes us come alive, and the purpose of religion is to facilitate this by helping us to live spiritual lives (that it largely hasn’t done a good job, and often gets in the way, is the subject of another essay/book/documentary series). We learn from Reb Simcha Bunim of Przysucha and Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, the Seer of Lublin, that each of us is a uniquely created individual who needs to search his or her heart and soul to discover what makes us truly “us” and how we embody particular aspects of the divine — and then, each of us needs to bring this understanding to all that is holy (and everything is holy). This lifelong process of becoming the true expression of our souls is most expertly summed up in Howard Thurman’s now ubiquitous quote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
How does this play out in the physical world? The practice of religion offers us a fiery ride that whisks us through settledness/comfort/certainty and unsettledness/discomfort/uncertainty. Sometimes, we laugh and scream as children, hoping to return to the ride. Sometimes, we curse and pull the emergency stop, swearing never to return. We need to allow ourselves discomfort to grow. We also need rest, refuge, and recharge from the meteorological, financial, and social uncertainties of life. Mitzvot, liturgy, tikkun olam (repair of the world), Torah, and the calendar are tools lovingly offered by Judaism to discover, refine, and express ourselves in relation to the larger world we live in.
At Pesach, we re-experience slavery as we celebrate freedom. Then, we count 49 days of the omer until Shavuot. Each week of the omer is associated with a specific trait, or sephira, (such as loving-kindness, persistence, boundaries) that we can use to pick apart and/or strengthen our character. The Jewish calendar then throws our whole system out of whack with the all-night learning and meditating tradition for observing the holiday of Shavuot. Of course, we’re rewarded at dawn when, traditionally, the Torah is revealed at sunrise.
And then, in the fall, as the High Holidays approach, we’re encouraged to take a soul inventory, cheshbon hanefesh. We rummage through the past year and ask those we’ve hurt for forgiveness. This teshuvah, (re)turning to our true selves, allows us to shed the internal schmutz we don’t want to take into the next year. The momentum peaks at Neilah, as the gates of Yom Kippur close, when some of us are compelled — suffering or high from fasting, joyful or anxious — to shout our prayers. Doing teshuvah — wanting and seeking forgiveness, and then changing our ways — causes us to live our lives as a Book of Life, the goal of the High Holidays.
This running and returning between unsettled and settled, uncertain and certain (for as long as it lasts), permeates our lives. Sometimes, we crave uncertainty. In games such as Monopoly or Dungeons and Dragons, not knowing is fun. We flock to horror movies to feel discomfort. We employ gurus and therapists to help us to re-experience the most unsettling emotions (toward the goal of comfort).
But there are pitfalls to not knowing. When we enter a synagogue or join a minyan and don’t know what’s happening — even if an emissary welcomes and guides us — the sense of unknowing can foster alienation and, often, we don’t return.
Using these tools isn’t automatic; just because we have them doesn’t mean we use them. I know my work is to be present with queer and/or homeless youth on the streets of Chicago — to be with people on their spiritual journeys. But the how of it is perplexing, and sometimes it feels as though I’m not paying attention. I don’t always open the toolbox, and I struggle to balance my varied professional interests, as well as to pay attention to my personal needs so that I will not burn out.