What is the purpose of a spiritual engagement? What is the value of belonging to a religious community? Whatever our religious affiliation, and even if we are only marginally connected, these questions can be helpful to ask of ourselves. Think of it this way, whether we have reason to go the doctor frequently or not (hopefully not), we should try our very best not to forgo an annual check-up, if we can help it; whether we belong to a faith community or not, we can stand only to benefit from asking ourselves: Why might one belong? What is a spiritual endeavor in a religious communal context all about in its essence?
Most often, the responses I receive to these questions center on the themes of comfort and escape. We bring comfort to those with whom we share spiritual fellowship and we are comforted when we are in need. In the spirit and harmonious melodies of worship, in the warmth of our sanctuaries, we can escape the demands, tumult, and burdens of daily life, recalibrating toward greater spiritual equalibrium.
To be sure, these are authentic and vital elements of all spiritual striving. These are among the finest qualities -- timeless values -- of religious engagement. However, the Judeo-Christian heritage demands more of us, and extends even broader opportunity to us, than comfort and escape alone. Had it not done so historically, Western religion would have offered the world nothing in the way of the revolutionary alternative that spawned Western civilization, distinguishing itself progressively from the repetitive narrowness of the pagan cultures that preceded it. Consider the following.
The Torah -- The Five Books of Moses -- offers two renditions of God’s Revelation at Sinai. The first is in real time, recording in the Book of Exodus the events as we are told that they unfolded. The second is found in the Book of Deuteronomy, as Moses revisited the occurrences throughout the Jewish People’s desert-journey toward the Promised Land. In each instance, among the Ten Commandments uttered aloud, one finds the precept to observe the Sabbath.
Quite remarkably, the reason given for Sabbath observance differs in each recounting. In Exodus, the Sabbath is to be remembered, for God sanctified the seventh day and rested upon it, having completed the creation of the world. A universal purpose is ascribed to the Sabbath. It was intended to return us all to Eden, to a time and place when, at most, one family existed in the entire world; no distinctions existed between spiritual pathways, only a singular wholeness awaited humanity’s acknowledgment and sacred celebration.
In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is to be observed as a day of rest, for the Jewish People had been slaves in Egypt with no such opportunity. Here, a more particular purpose is ascribed to the Sabbath. Having been denied liberty as slaves, a sacred day of rest was to have been, at once, a communal and personal Jewish experience of spiritual and practical sovereignty -- every week, for all of time.
But, the reasons ascribed seem, at first glance, to be confused. The generation leaving Egypt had known slavery. Surely, they could more easily have related to a Sabbath celebrating personal and communal sovereignty. And, the generation entering the Promised Land had no recollection of Egypt at all. Surely, having been protected by God’s cloud of glory and fed by God’s mana while traveling through the desert they could more easily have related to a Sabbath celebrating God’s creative and sustaining capacity -- an appreciation of the source of all wholeness, a more universal disposition toward the Sabbath.
The message is simple, perhaps, but instructive. The generation that experienced slavery in Egypt was challenged to stretch beyond its own traumatic experience, beyond the world's brokenness, to find a contrary truth in the wholeness of God’s world. The generation that knew only of the God’s sheltering comfort was required to consider its historical past as slaves so that it might know to protect its presumed sovereignty.
If we today, the heirs of a Judeo-Christian heritage that has changed the world, are to continue to revolutionize the world toward the better, then, as each of the generations above, we must be open to the sacred messages and purposes of our traditions that challenge our spiritual basic assumptions. Our spiritual and religious experience should not merely confirm what we know already to be true; rather, it should stretch us toward greater insight and capacity to understand and then to act meaningfully and decisively in service of the world's betterment. Ultimately, even the comfort and escape that we seek and lend will depend upon and reflect the depth of our spiritual character, as we challenge ourselves -- as two ancient generations of the Jewish People did so long ago.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay. For information regarding Membership, Religious Services, Adult Classes, Pre-School, and Religious School, contact the synagogue’s office (310) 377-6986 or www.nertamid.com.