Let me show you something. (Hold up round challah.) We all know that we bake round challahs for the High Holy Days, but why? It symbolizes the circle of the year. We have come around again to the first of Tishrei. But think about it: is that what we want—to have come full circle unchanged? And even if we wanted stasis, is it possible? We are not the same people we were last year. We’ve known joy and sorrow, we’ve learned some things and forgotten others. That is the way of the world.
The Days of Awe teach us that there’s a moral component to the cycle. It’s our job to turn the circle into a spiral: we may come back to the same date on the time axis, but we strive to rise higher as Jews and human beings on the moral axis. And look at this challah. It is actually not a circle but a spiral, embodying this idea.
The Days of Awe are not isolated in this goal. They are of a piece with Judaism as a whole, because the symbols, practices and laws serve throughout the year to bring us, as the High Holy Day kaddish says, l’eila l’eila, higher and higher.
We’re not used to thinking of the mitzvot and customs this way. We take them for granted. They just are. So I’d like to explore how Judaism is a system for personal and spiritual growth. I found a useful text about this when we read Parshat B’ha·a lot’kha last June, so I ask forgiveness from those of you who were present then as I develop those ideas further.
The Torah text doesn’t seem that promising. It’s part of the description of the Israelites’ wanderings through the wilderness, guided by God’s presence in the form of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. The Torah says, And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp. At a command of the LORD the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the LORD they made camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle. When the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle many days, the Israelites observed the LORD’s mandate and did not journey on. (Num 9:19)
At first glance, this seems to be little more than a travelogue, but look closer. We know that God was the Israelites’ GPS through the wilderness, but the great commentator Nachmanides helps us see how frustrating this must have been. They never knew how long they would stay. Sometimes the chosen site was uncomfortable. Packing and unpacking the whole people on an uncertain schedule was arduous. Yet they were compelled to follow the cloud “Whether it was two days or a month or a year and they journeyed at night.”
Anyone who’s ever been stuck in an airport listening to contradictory announcements about their flight’s departure can relate to the Israelites’ frustration at their start and stop wanderings. So Nachmanides wants us to know that God was not being arbitrary. God had reasons.
Rabbi Yaakov Baifus in his fine book Yalkut Lekah Tov makes this clearer. He quotes from the great Mussar teacher Rabbi Eliahu Dessler. He teaches that God’s strange behavior, though it seems to be mistreating the Israelites
…was for the sake of education in accepting the yoke of the Torah. We’ve long known that one who thinks to dwell in quiet and contentment and all comfort, and then serve God—makes a great mistake. Receiving the Torah is achieved by becoming accustomed to carrying a heavy burden under difficult conditions.
God’s plan was to transition them to a different kind of authority from what they’d known as slaves, that of Torah and mitzvot, of Divine commandments. When you are motivated by an external force, you don’t need discipline. But once the Torah is given to Israel, and they are told that they must learn it and follow it, they must find the inner resources to “walk in God’s ways.”
One of my favorite sayings is “the Torah was only given in order to purify the heart.” But the Torah isn’t magic—it’s a method. In their book Judaism: The Way of Sanctification, Rabbis Samuel Dresner and Byron Sherwin compare it to the Olympics. We admire the athletes’ remarkable displays of skill at the upper end of human accomplishment, and we know that they are achieved
through a rigid schedule of training, a training which almost imperceptibly tunes muscles, heightens coordination and lengthens endurance, until one’s latent physical powers are nurtured to their fullest. Such is the nature of discipline… [The same is true for the musician.] No artist performs without exacting and exhausting practice…Skill—be it physical, artistic or intellectual—requires discipline.
And they conclude:
What is so easily understood in regard to physical, musical or intellectual skill is, unfortunately, rarely applied to a far more important part of life—morality. What preparation, practice or discipline is provided for moral living? Any unprepared sloppiness goes. It is here that Judaism has something crucial to say. It has long understood that the human condition requires, above all, moral training. It urges upon us a rigid schedule of discipline through the mitzvot, from birth to death and across every day of the year, in the knowledge that man’s spiritual potential must be treated like his physical and aesthetic potential…So it sets down a strict regimen for each Jew, matching physical acts with spiritual concerns, until the spirit in man grows strong and prevails.
In other words, the Torah is like Mr. Miyagi. Stay with me here. As you no doubt remember from the movie The Karate Kid, Daniel wants Mr. Miyagi to teach him to fight. He is frustrated when Miyagi begins his training by having him perform monotonous labors such as waxing cars, sanding a wood floor, and painting a fence. Each chore is accompanied with a specific movement, such as clockwise/counter-clockwise hand motions, “Wax on, wax off.” Eventually, Daniel becomes upset, believing that he has learned nothing of karate, whereupon Mr. Miyagi reveals that Daniel has actually been learning defensive blocks. The repetitive chores have built muscle memory. Mitzvot work to give us spiritual and ethical “muscle memory.” In addition, Daniel was learning discipline, and the mitzvot teach us that as well.
There was an article in the New York Times last year about research on the relationship between religion and self-control. One of the researchers, Dr. Michael McCullough, told the reporter, “Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of the brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion. The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”
Some of this discipline works just by learning to be constant in performance. But it is also the case that ritual and ethical commandments are connected; they can reinforce each other. A few examples:
Shabbat teaches us that there is more to life than work, that we are more than our jobs, and gives us time for rest, thought, meditation and prayer. It connects us with others, both through communal worship, and the ingrained practice of hospitality at Shabbat meals. There are people here who could tell you how observing Shabbat has transformed and enriched their lives. In this valley of heroic overwork, they have found peace, regeneration, and connection.
Regular worship gives us quiet time within our daily routine of bustle and work. It focuses our attention outside of ourselves, and no matter our theological certainty or confusion, it brings God’s name to our lips.
The Purim mitzvot of Mishloah Manot, giving food to friends and acquaintances, and Mattanot La-evyonim, gifts to the poor, train us to share our joy, and teach that there should never be celebration without giving. These deeds train us to maintain relationships and strengthen community.
The mitzvah of tzedakah has us open our hands, which have a natural tendency to clench shut around our money. It guides us to view our wealth as a responsibility, and to live a generous life. It helps us form habits of the heart.
When performed mindfully, every mitzvah has its meaning and its role in refining our hearts and elevating our souls.
I know that Rabbi Baifuss’s challenging statement that “Receiving the Torah is given by becoming accustomed to carry a heavy burden under difficult conditions,” is not a great sales pitch, but it gets at an essential truth. Unless you are prepared to do a mitzvah even when it is burdensome and inopportune—you haven’t really accepted the obligation of the commandment. Just as the athlete knows that she must train, even when not in the mood, the practicing Jew follows the mitzvot, even when it is with a sigh.
And when we follow the regimen, we reach higher levels. This should come as no surprise. When I trained for a hundred mile bicycle ride, I had to ride and ride and ride so that on that day I could know the exhilaration of exceeding myself. If you are a musician, you play and play and play, so that you can reach that moment of flow when you and the music are one. Likewise, you work and you work and you work on your mitzvot, and then one day God’s presence enters your life with holiness and joy. This can happen with ritual and with ethical commandments.
We know the Israelites —I’m sure that they complained whenever God commanded them to move or stop, but they did it anyway—and thus they learned how to be a holy people. So too for us, the sacred discipline of spiritual growth can chafe, but ultimately, the rewards are great, and really, there are no shortcuts. In this way, Judaism is of a piece with everything we know about life.
You may have heard about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. It’s an investigation of success. He tells about research that indicates that the difference between someone who is good and someone who is great is 10,000 hours of practice. I joke that it’s simple to get your child to say “please” and “Thank you.” All you have to do was remind them 10,000 times. It turns out that I was on to something.
Gladwell cites research by Anders Ericsson, who studied successful violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music. Ericsson asked the students how much time they spent practicing and found that the violinists that performed better spent more time practicing. Gladwell writes:
The curious thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals” — musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find “grinds”, people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn’t have what it takes to break into the top ranks. Their research suggested that once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it.
This goes against the grain of some of the popular culture’s slogans, like, if you want it enough, you can do or be anything. But we know that it makes sense. So why should we be surprised to find that this applies to spirituality and goodness? It takes years of repeating the prayers to reach higher levels of intensity, intention, and expression. You have to perform tzedakah and good deeds many times until it is natural for you open your hand, greet someone with a smile, and reach into your pocket when asked to give. The goal is not for it to be second nature, but nature—your self transformed.
It’s what Dov Baer of Mazrich, the great Hassidic sage, meant when he told his students, “It’s not enough to say Torah; you must be Torah.” And you can only be Torah, just as you can only be the music or be the game, or be the paintbrush, if you make it your daily occupation.
Joseph Telushkin gives two wonderful examples of the transformative power of mitzvot in his newest book, the second volume of his A Code of Jewish Ethics. Both are from family members.
The first is his mother, Helen Telushkin. He writes that she “would always give generously to beggars who said, ‘I’m hungry.’ She told me that when she was very hungry, such as on Yom Kippur, she found the pangs so hard to bear that it was impossible for her to ignore the pleas of anyone who claimed to need food.”
What a wonderful example of how rituals teach ethics! The memory of our voluntary hunger on Yom Kippur can be, and should be a prod to compassion for those who are forced to starve.
The second story is about his daughter, who though young, evidently had enough experience of tzedakah to do it in the right spirit.
The neighborhood in New York City where my family lives is filled with so many beggars that people often ignore them or put some money in their palms and immediately walk away. Such was the case one day when my wife, Dvorah, was walking with our daughter Naomi, then seven. Dvorah had put a coin in a beggar’s hand, but after they had walked a few steps, Naomi said to her: “You didn’t do a proper mitzvah.”
“What should I have done?” Dvorah asked.
Naomi was prepared with the lesson she had learned at her Jewish day school: “You didn’t look the person in the face and say, ‘God bless you.’ Because when you give tzedakah, you have to give with a full heart.”
My wife immediately returned and gave the beggar a dollar, looked him in the eye, and said, “God bless you!” Later, she told me, “When I looked him in the eye, I saw a human being, not a beggar.”
Because that little girl had taken the Torah into her heart, she opened her mother’s heart, too. She wanted to do the mitzvah in the most mindful way, not just with a begrudged coin, but a kind word and human connection.
The way of mitzvah started with our ancestors’ journeys through the wilderness. There we began to learn to follow God’s ways, to accept God’s discipline, and to incorporate Torah into our daily lives — to train us in holiness and refine our hearts and souls. And we’re still learning, because it takes practice.
For everyone here who has wished for more spirituality, more depth, more meaning in your lives, who has ever envied someone’s observance and generosity of spirit, here is the path. Rabbi Schonbrun and I are always thrilled to help anyone who wants to grow in this way. So I pray for all of us:
May our words and deeds over these High Holy Day purify our hearts.
May the honey sweeten our temper.
May the shofar open our ears to cries of human suffering
May tashlikh help us to cast away bad habits and attitudes.
May opening our cupboard for the food drive open our hearts.
May the hunger of our fast expand our empathy.
May we know the joy and uplift of Shabbat rest and peace.
And may we find ways every day in this New Year to train ourselves to be Torah, and so bring blessing to ourselves and to the world. Amen.