The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 1 Dec. 1998

D'VAR TORAH (A WORD OF TORAH)

Don't Let Obstacles Prevent You from Moving Forward Spiritually

When I teach about faith and trust in God, which are essentials of Jewish piety, people often bring up suffering and the Holocaust. My answer is usually that that is Judaism 102. Judaism 101 is, first, to become established in recognizing that everything good in your life is from God. If each of us would list all the good things we benefit from and enjoy -- our homes, our clothes, our food, our family, our friends, our music, and on and on -- the list would be long. Despite our sufferings, most of us are still happy to be alive. Once a person is firmly established in being grateful to God for all the good, he can then turn his mind to recognizing that the "bad" too is also good. Let's say you meet someone and encounter, right off, their bad traits. You won't want to be his or her friend. But after you've seen all that person's goodness, you can bear his bad traits, and give him the benefit of the doubt, etc. It is the same, so to speak, with God. First, become aware of all the good God does, that this whole wonderful world is only created for the benefit of the creatures and it is full of so much good. Then turn your attention to Judaism 102, to go deeper and realize that since God is good, the seeming bad is also good, even if we can't always comprehend how. The great mystics always teach that ultimately some things are mysterious and beyond our comprehension; certainly that is true of the Holocaust. But have faith, and trust God. The point is not to let the obstacles to faith prevent you from getting close to God. Put sufferings to the side and focus on the good. God-willing, you'll reach the consciousness of the tzaddikim and mystics who all tell us that God is good and everything He does is for good.

A similar thought: If, as you move forward on the path of Jewish spirituality, the path to God, you focus on what you can't do -- you don't davven three times a day, you don't keep Shabbat fully, etc. etc., you'll make yourself miserable and discourage yourself. Don't focus on the negative! Focus on the things in Judaism that give you pleasure and joy. Don't let your Judaism become associated in your mind with negative feelings and guilt. Let it be associated with joy. For example, let's say you try to pray three times a day and find that you can't keep it up. Do what you can, and don't trouble yourself. Instead, turn your attention to what gives you joy -- maybe, Torah study or Shabbat. But go deeper. Get deeper into it and have more joy. Then, later, the other gates may open for you. You may be able to go back to an attempt at three-times-a-day davvening and succeed. Of course, this doesn't mean to abandon any spiritual effort right off. We have to exert ourselves and stretch ourselves. But if, after real attempts, you see that a certain mitzvah or observance doesn't work for you, don't focus on it. Forget it for a while and focus on what gives you pleasure and joy. (Of course, this prescription is only one way and is only for those to whom it speaks.)

When I was first becoming religious, I entered a Lubavitcher yeshiva while still an agnostic (recently having graduated from being an atheist). But I'm always proud that I had the awareness not to allow the obstacles I encountered in Judaism to deter me from getting close to my own tradition, to my own soul. I decided that my first reaction would be that the teaching was right not wrong, correct not incorrect. I actually acquired a new facial expression! How often does one acquire a new facial expression? The way a secular intellectual reads a text, he squints suspiciously and looks at the text, thinking, "It's probably wrong!" That is not how one studies the holy Torah. One studies the Torah with devotion. It is right and I am wrong. The Rabbis say that if you find something in the Torah that seems empty of meaning, the emptiness is in you. So when studying the Torah this new way, making the Torah correct, I developed a new facial expression. When I encountered something that struck me as wrong or objectionable, both my eyebrows together went up, and I thought, "What is this? I don't understand this!" I decided that when I encountered something in the texts or in teaching I received that I found objectionable, I would of course first try to understand it, but if I was not able to reconcile with it, I would "file it" for future reference. I would not dwell on it or let it deter me from further involvement. This enabled me to get close to the teachings that enlivened me without being pushed off by the teachings that I found problematical or objectionable. At a later point, I took the difficult matters out of the file and was able to look at them from a deeper perspective. Some problems were resolved, some not. But the essential point is that I didn't let my objections keep me from getting close to the tradition. To understand this, imagine an anthropologist going to study a tribe in Africa or Asia and encountering their suppression of women. If he says, "Oh, I can't bear this. I'm not staying here!" it's absurb. He'd never be able to learn about that whole culture because he was pushed off by this custom, this behavior. Is that reasonable? Clearly not. How much more is that true when we're talking about our own people's culture, that we shouldn't allow ourselves to be alienated by this or that aspect that we find objectionable.

All these three points are directed to the same end, to enable us to go forward spiritually, to deepen our relation to God and to the tradition. Ignore the obstacles to faith; jump over them, so to speak. Worrying too much about suffering‹a problem theologians and philosophers have struggled with for centuries -- will only deter you from getting close to God. And don't worry about what you can't do Jewishly. Focus on what you can do. How wonderful to feel God's presence when you do the Jewish things that enliven you and give you joy! Go deeper and, later, gates may open in areas where you felt difficulty. Lastly, put aside ideological objections that you can't reconcile, not to dispose of them altogether, but to give yourself a chance to look at Judaism from up close. Later, you may (or may not) view things differently. With God's help, may we all move closer to Him and experience the joy of the Shechinah.

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Copyright 2004-2005, Yitzhak Buxbaum. All rights reserved.