A “mantra” of Kiruv organizations (institutions aimed at leading unobservant Jews into (usually) orthodox lives) has long been לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצות אף על פי שלא לשמה, שמתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה (….sh’mitoch s’lo lishma bo lishma), “One should engage with Torah and Mitzvot even without intention and understanding (literally, not for the sake of God’s name) because performing them in that manner will (eventually) lead to performing them for the right reasons, i.e. for the sake of God’s name. (This, or slight variations, appears multiple times in the Talmud and Zohar.) With greater faith in our earlier sages than I find justified in many of today’s leaders, I’d say that this principle is at best misapplied much more often than it is applied properly.
Of course, we all need to start somewhere and that usually means slowly, tentatively, without much understanding and, inevitably, with many mistakes. The finest musician cannot pick up a score for music he’s never before heard and, even with superb sight-reading skills, give more than a superficial run-through. The technique and the notes might come easily if he is sufficiently facile, but to perform it with the power to move an audience comes only after much work discovering a deeper and deeper understanding of the inner music. One thousand repetitions, without the player listening in, exploring, “mining” for deeper meaning and then further refining it will only produce, at best, a boring and mechanical experience.
Likewise, our emotional, intellectual and spiritual engagement with God doesn’t miraculously develop because of mere mechanical repetition of our prayers and studies. We need to continuously monitor our progress and explore new directions to cultivate it. We also need to navigate the at-times-painful decision whether to retreat and change directions when we’re stuck or to keep forging ahead along the same path because we’ve possibly merely approached but not yet reached our next step. Perhaps this is the hardest part of the entire process, not least owing to the ultimate impossibility of truly measuring our progress ourselves.
Of course, no one can see inside of us and tell us if we’re feeling closer to The Creator. On the other hand, it’s far too easy to give into the narcissistic solipsism so popular in modern western thinking that “if it feels good it must be right”. Even though our great prophets, sages and mystics down the millennia describe their ecstasy when they momentarily achieved devekut, direct connection to God, all too often our reading list is highly incomplete; we ignore their descriptions of the lifelong struggles to reach it.
Having never reached these profound states myself, I can’t tell you how you can. But I can point out some traps I’ve both personally encountered and studied. They fall into two major classes which, not surprisingly, are discussed in our tradition. The first is endlessly recycling, day-after-day, year-after-year our initial, entry-level practices. We become experts at Torah and Mitzvot lo lishma (rote) because we refuse (or are discouraged) to grow. Dulled by endless mechanical acts, we fear any deviation from our baby steps, and usually there is no one to even guide us further.
The mirror of this trap is the endless search for ecstatic, “mind-blowing” thrills. With no fear or awareness that chasing our immature ideas of “spirituality”, often leads to quick, dead-end highs that have nothing to do with our unique road-map of Torah (after all, Judaism isn’t the world’s only spiritual tradition even though it is the spiritual path “fine-tuned” for our Neshamot, souls). Merely labeling whatever feels good as “Judaism”, we’re dishonest with ourselves, no matter how idealistic we are. Seduced by “spiritual” intoxication, we have no reason to change (or really grow).
With endless emphasis on cycles, yearly holidays, weekly Shabbatot, daily prayers and mitzvot, we lull ourselves into merely “going around in circles”, whether mechanical/rote or free-form/roll-your-own.
Rather, Torah demands the spiral, constantly moving higher each iteration as we search for and develop our individual/unique relationship with God. We need both bravery and faith. Each time we pass over familiar ground, daily, weekly, yearly and longer cycles, we must let go of our previous understandings and experiences, no matter how hard-earned and satisfying they were. We need find a way to bring our familiar words and rituals, our road-map, at least incrementally higher. We seek nothing less than the admittedly unattainable goal of complete merging with The Creator, even while we gratefully accept much less…..just as long as it’s a little more than yesterday, than last year….
We need neither get stuck in an eternal lo lishma nor fall to the hubris that we can begin lishma based entirely on our own yet-unschooled intuition. We can balance timidity with אהבה, Ahavah, love, self-indulgence with יראה, Yirah, awe.
Not saying it’s easy….