When the Small Still Voice is Screaming in Your Ear

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
April 29, 2014
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Ram Dass (right) and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Ram Dass (right) and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

We all want prayer, or any “spiritual experience,” to be transcendental, transformative, transformational and inspirational each time. It doesn’t work that way. It really does not matter which tradition, which religion, which philosophy, which anything, these types of experiences are few and far between. There’s a story I’ve heard, I don’t know if it’s true, but it gets to the heart of trying to fast track transcendental experiences.

Ram Dass is a fairly well known spiritual teacher most famous for writing Be Here Now. His name used to be Richard Alpert and he was a psychotherapist at Harvard University in the 1960s. He did some lab research with another Harvard psychologist, Timothy Leary, and the two of them developed theories of utilizing LSD as a psychiatric therapy. Now, according to the story I heard which may or may not be true (I lean toward the latter), when Dr. Alpert was removed from his position for giving psychedelic mushrooms to an undergraduate student, he traveled to India. There he met a guru he referred to as Maharajji. The story I was told is that Alpert would regularly and secretly administer LSD to Maharajji, and no matter how much of the psychedelic he gave him, there would be no effect. This lesson inspired Alpert to leave behind his penchant for psychedelic drugs and attempt to achieve the transcendental and transformative experiences he had been seeking through meditation. This revelation merited Alpert to have his name changed to Ram Dass by Maharajji. Again, I do not claim that there is any validity to this story, but it frames the point well.

True spiritual transformation takes work, not play.

Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef Lainer, the Ishbitzer Rebbe (1801-1854) wrote in his work Mei HaShiloah about the process of seeking the Divine. He proposed that when we reach out to God, the Holy One actually hides from us as if to test the veracity of our desire. The Ishbitzer seems to be commenting on the common experience that we want to experience something of the Divine, but at the end of the day, we usually do not make it all the way there. He says, “when a person begins to draw themselves near to the Blessed One, then the Blessed One hides God’s light from that person.” The result is frustrating, but according to the Mei HaShiloah it is a process that actually brings us closer, but he makes the incredibly important point, WE must want to be a part of the process of seeking in order to ourselves be found. Or, in his words, “a person recognizes that there really is no such thing as hester panim (Hiding of God’s Face) in reality, since at the outset when they cried out God responds according to the ability of someone’s understanding and through the experience of hester panim eventually comes to experience redemption.” But it does not end there, he goes on to state: “When a person merits that the Blessed One finds them, of course this is not an accident…” The person seeks the experience of the Holy One, but, according to the Ishbitzer Rebbe, it is the Holy One who finds us. He makes the ever important caveat, “It depends on your willingness to choose…”

Ultimately, the quality of our experiences is a personal choice – that is the first step in experiencing “spiritual intensity.” The next step, the most important step, is the very hard work it takes to cultivate those experiences. The final step, and almost as important, is to recognize that the small still voice we seek is not always perceptible, even when, as the Ishbitzer seems to frame it, it is actually screaming in our ear the whole time!

Rabbi Elliot Dorff frames it in more modern terms – a baseball player cannot expect to hit a home run each and every time they step up to the plate. Sometimes even the greatest batters strike out. This is what makes home runs so exciting, let alone grand slams. Any experienced ball player will tell you, if you swing for the stands each and every time you’re up for bat, your shoulders will give out sooner than they need to and you’ll strike out more often than you should (unless you’re on steroids… or LSD in the case of Ram Dass…) Slow and steady wins the race, as they say, and this seems to be just as valid, in my opinion and experience, in seeking to experience a semblance of the Divine.


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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG

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