Each wind around my arm of the tefillin strap should activate one of the sefirot points in my body and in my soul. They should connect with the sefirot of the Olam Gadol, the transcendent universe, joining my Olam Katan, the “small”, personal and unique world of myself with the universal, eternal network of energy. Each morning, as I encircle my head with the transcendent light of the strap of my tefilla shel rosh, holding that box on my forehead, I should be overwhelmed with the light that bathes me.
It’s not that these things don’t happen each and every day, but, rather, that I’m too distracted, too disengaged, too alienated to even notice, let alone wonder. Like all too many fellow Jews, I don tefillin and daven shacharit every morning focused on all the “important” things ahead of me that day, just as soon as I get this out of the way. I’ve become very good, too adept, indeed, at the rituals and practices of orthodox Judaism. I can mumble my tefillot with the best of them and have gotten the time it takes to either put my tallit and tefillin on (I’m usually running late to shul and have to speed to “catch up”) or take them off to “start my day for real” to under a minute.
Curiously, I’m not bragging about this; rather I’m lamenting and confessing. With all good intention in the world, I’ve become just another “by rote” Jew. I’ve had conversations with enough friends to know that I’m not alone here, and I suspect there are many more of us than any of us suspect.
Something is seriously wrong when we’ve taken the unique and sacred opportunity of regularly attaching our finite selves to The Infinite, to connect ourselves to the energy of the universe, and have, instead, slid into a “just going through the motions” mode. Part of this problem is, I think, hard-wired into us as humans–we’re built to get used to things and to then take them for granted. It’s hard work to overcome this self-dulling we all seem to do, but fighting complacence is an individual struggle I believe we’re meant to face and win. It’s called growth.
I’m afraid that there is another significant, institutional component, and as a rabbi I have to take my share of responsibility for the breakdown. As much as I think and teach and write about the need for unique, “custom fit” halacha, we all rely on a supposed “normative” halacha and get hung up, both as practitioners and as teachers, with a check-list mentality. Did I pour water over my hands in the right number and right pattern? Check. Did I mumble the bracha? Check. Did I put my shoes on in the right order? Kippah? Check. Tallit? Check. Tefillin? Check. Daven? Check. Learn a schtickel? Check. Then it might extend to black pants? Check. White shirt? Check. Hat? Check. Make sure someone can see a significant part of the kippah where the hat isn’t covering? Check. Tzitzit out? Check. Am I a great Jew or what? But, before we dislocate our shoulders patting ourselves on the back……
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo makes the distinction between “observant” and “religious”. The very word “observant”, I realize, means that you’re looking at something from the outside, not experiencing it inside. It can also mean behaving in a way that someone else can “observe” that you’re “observant“.
I’ll say it very simply and clearly. There is, in many circles, too much emphasis on collecting “mitzva points” rather than in experiencing even one mitzva deeply. The entire goal of this system of Torah and Mitzvot is to connect each unique Jewish neshama to its source in The Creator himself. Yes, it’s a group project, if you will, of the Jewish people, but it isn’t helped by muddying the waters through making mitzvot artificially more difficult, by enforcing arbitrary uniformity or by giving the illusion that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is gleefully waiting for us to mess up when the reality is that Avinu Malkenu, like all fathers, is anxiously anticipating His children’s ultimate success.
Maybe it’s just the nature of the process. I’ve played guitar for close to fifty years. When I first started I felt every note, literally–my fingers would burn and ache. Over time, I developed calluses on my fingertips. Somehow, though, these calluses eventually allowed me to coax real sound, real feeling out of a vibrating string. Take the analogy a little further, it is only now starting, with years and years of repetitive movements, to be able to create the forms, almost automatically, in order to be able to devote my real thought, my deepest kavvanah, to letting the force and energy of the music flow through me, into my fingers, into the guitar, into the air and, hopefully, into the hearts.
Likewise, perhaps the time is right, wherever you are in your journey, to rely on “muscle memory” to perform the rituals and to devote your real hearts and minds to experiencing them from the inside out, radiating beyond ourselves and configuring with each Jew’s unique energy, to join together in a veritable symphony of holiness.