The Thrill is Gone

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.

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7 Responses to The Thrill is Gone

  1. Heena Reiter says:

    Thanks for asking for feedback. I honor your honesty and self-reflection, self-disclosure to yourself as well as to all of us. My resistance to traditional halachic observance stems precisely from ‘observing’ ‘observant’ Jews, who appear to be disconnected from their practice. I am fortunate, though, in that, by nature, I need and move more easily toward connection than to obedience; more toward devotion than toward performance. I know of at least one orthodox rabbi/teacher who started attending yoga before davenning, in order that he could connect to his body and consciousness before engaging in the morning prayer ritual. It helped a bit, last I spoke with him. May you be blessed with the opening you desire, IY”H. Blessings, Heena, your student

  2. Amy Gray says:

    This was a post I could relate to! Thank you for sharing your personal reflections.

  3. David Adatto says:

    In the Kadish Le Kol Bechor sections I read after putting on Tefilin, the verse says, “ki yisalecha bincha machar lamor mah zot” meaning when your sons asks you tomorrow why are we doing these strange things, and he says he first wants to understand the deeper reasons before ever committing to do this ritual, you should notice the text says machar, when your sons asks you tomorrow. Why would he ask you tomorrow and not today? Perhaps the correct procedure is just do it today so that you can understand tomorrow.

    • Yes, but after we’ve been doing it for a long time, perhaps we have to re-check and make sure we’re doing more than just the mechanical. I agree that first you have to learn how to do it, and that comes with practice. But practice should, ultimately, lead to doing it better and better on every level.

  4. The idea of doing it lo lishma, i.e. without real awareness and kavana, in order to come to do it lishma makes sense, but it’s not an excuse to not bother taking the next step to lishma. Also, no excuse to having reached doing it lishma and then just getting so used to it that it’s no longer lishma. I’m certainly not saying don’t do it unless you’re doing it at some predetermined level of kavana. Rather, as long as you’re already doing it, let’s get back to bringing it to where it should/can be.

  5. Nahariyah Mosenkis says:

    Maybe it would help to think of it like any other spiritual or meditative practice. It is a practice: attention wanders and you have to bring it back, there are pulls to multi-tasking, planning, mulling over the past, going to sleep, immersing in some emotion etc, but the task is to be truly present with what you are doing and your kavana in the moment. Laziness, boredom, thinking it will be the same experience because you have done this before and the like are all ways our minds have of preventing us from staying present and going deeper-maybe you think it has gone as deep as it can. As you said the idea that you get mitzva points just for going through the motions is a big pitfall for observant Jews. While you don’t want to stop doing it, if you excuse yourself from doing anything more than rote observance you cannot attain the real potential of the practice. Is this current rote practice part of the ratzo v’shov or a permanent settling in? Is it settling for less? I would investigate more deeply the place and function of the tefillin practice in your spiritual life. Do you really experience connection when you do it, rotely or with kavanah? Are you getting spiritual juice in another spiritual practice?(maybe that is enough) Have you demoted spiritual juice as a value? If so why? Has your current experience of God been integrated into your theology and practices? Our culture doesn’t really value depth of experience and it is easy to succumb to its pulls to get on with what “really matters” and there is also the reality of having to get to that other stuff in order to live, but it doesn’t really take any longer to be present with what you are doing. If you do it with kavana do you think you are making up the experience and it is therefore not real? Are you present with God/God with you while you do it? I have definitely gone through dry spells of not feeling God’s presence, in prayer for example and quit praying regularly(ultimately this did not help matters). I know there are Chasidic texts about about the highest level of prayer being God talking to itself; it is possible that if you really payed attention/stayed present as you put on tefillin you might notice that “you” are not the one who is doing it-or the rest of your life for that matter. This latter comes not out of my experience but learning(head) on another path.
    I have been having a year, going on two now, of doing holidays pretty rotely and I know it is because I’m in a transition both of life situation and theology, and I also seem to have a gripe w/ God at the moment. I must also say I am not orthodoxly/halachicly observant-though I am observant and I am not male so I don’t have the same obligations you see yourself as having. None-the-less maybe something I said will be useful to someone.

    • Although I was speaking from experience, it was less a confessional as an illustration of how widespread the problem is. There are lots of reasons for less-than-full attention and presence, and you mentioned some important ones. Tefillin, like all mitzvot, is a complex activity with many facets. Like all mitzvot, ultimately it’s aimed at connecting us with The Creator. And, sadly, it won’t always be as successful as we’d like–ratzo v’shuv is one of the reasons, of course.
      The primary aim of my article is to point out the inherent danger of rote/habit, but by implication, the enormous power that’s available through mitzvot. As an aside, the root of mitzva, tzava, is related to the root tzevet, which means a group–brownie points are irrelevant, but the potential to join up with God is what mitzvot are all about. I get frustrated by the wasted opportunities, both personally and communally.

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