Thursday, February 9, 2012

Winters of the Soul

It has been a cold winter here in Israel and in much of the world. When our physical condition is compromised by the cold we know what to do. We dress warmly for the outside. We up the heat for the insides of our home. And if we get fortunate we escape the cold altogether for a time and travel to a place with a warmer climate.
But what about the spiritual cold? What about the inevitable times when our soul seems constricted and depleted of its warmth. How do we create a 'varmkeit' when our innards feel frigid and o
spirit is hibernating?

I understood the early section of this week's parsha of Yitro to be talking to me and to just such a time. Let me quote the relevant passages here. Its somewhat lengthy but relevant for our discussion.

"And Yitro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe heard
all that G-d did for Moshe and all Israel His People, that Hashem
brought the Israelites out of Egypt....And Yitro, the father-in-law
of Moshe and his children and wife came to Moshe to the wilderness
where they camped to the Mountain of G-d....And Moshe went out to
greet his father-in-law and he kissed him and they exchanged
salutations and Moshe brought him to his tent. And there Moshe told
him the story of all that happened, what Hashem did to the Pharaoh
and Egypt, about the Israelite's experience, and of all their challenges
of the journey and how G-d saved them. And Yitro became excited for
all the good Hashem did for Israel that He saved them from the
Egyptians. And Yitro said 'Blessed be Hashem who saved you from the
Egyptians and from the Pharaoh, who saved you the People from
clutches of Egypt. Now I know that Hashem is is greater than any
other God because he saved you from their evil intentions towards

There are many questions that emerge from this passage. But let me raise this one for now. The Torah tells us that Yitro, while still in Midian heard all of what Hashem did for the Israelites. He knew of the events even before he came to the camp.
So then why is it that on hearing the story told to him by Moshe did he become so moved. He aready knew the facts. He came because of them. What did Moshe add that made Yitro so emotionally responsive and prompt his spontaneous blessing.

We each may have our own idea here. Let me share the way I understand the story.
Yitro was a priest of Midian, even as the Torah makes clear and then repeats in the narrative. He was invested in matters of the spirit. He wanted a faith he could believe in. His pagan practice seemingly did little to sate his quest for the primal truths. When he heard about the miracles G-d performed in Egypt and in the Exodus he came to the wilderness. He left the comforts of home (as Rashi tells us) to discover the truth he needed to know.

He did not hear from Moshe anything he did not already know. It was not new facts that impressed him. What Yitro heard was the story, not a story of G-d's grandeur, but a story of relationship. He heard the personal account of how G-d saved His People. He heard a story of relationship between the Deity and a human entity, a story filled with Divine care and compassion. It was not G-d's power or feats that impressed Yitro. Many Gods claim that. No, rather it was G-d's humility and His availability to His People in a spiritual intimacy that moved Yitro to belief.
When Yitro comes to accept our G-d he said "Now I know that Hashem is greater than any other God, because He saved you from the evil intentions of others towards you." Yitro is saying, "It is because G-d's goal is not to impress but to save, even in the quiet, when no one knows, he saves us from other's bad intentions, in that I know He is truly G-d."

Yitro knew there was a G-d before he came. He heard of the miracles. What he did not know was of G-d's greatness. Miracles are fact. They don't tell a story. He did not know G-d's essential greatness until he heard the story first hand from his son-in-law, a survivor. What he heard was not a story of G-d making miracles but a story of G-d saving His sufferring children through miracles. Miracles were not the end but the means. It was when he heard of G-d, not qua G-d but rather G-d in relationship with us that he was moved to embrace the faith of Israel. It was the story of the personal G-d that was so compelling as to lift the doubts from this life-long searcher for spiritual truth and to convince him of the veracity of the G-d of Israel.

What do we do when we find our souls feeling the cold and lacking enthusiasm. We all experience such times. We may say our prayers but they lack the feeling. We may say grace after meals, but our thanks feel empty.We study, we do kindnesses, we parent our children saying all the right things and yet we are not fully present.
How do we get back the vitality of faith and relationship to both G-d and others that is the fire of ths soul?

From the remedy I think we can also discern the cause of our malaise of the spirit.
I think when our souls go cold we are missing story in our life. Our figid spirit eminates from a religious practice that, while full of devotion and belief, lacks the personal dimension. Our faith has no face to it. We do, we perform, we commit, we may even sacrifice, but without a story in mind. Our service lacks the color commentary to feed it and give it juice. We stop listening and telling tales. We become so focused on the content that we lose the context.

I will tell you. A Shabbat table needs more than words of Torah to make it a spiritual haven. It needs stories, hassidic stories, stories of the sages, or our stories of faith and deliverance. Faith needs to be grounded in the human experience to come alive. Children forever seem to be full of enthusiasm why?, because they are constantly being excited by stories. Yitro found G-d because of Moshe's story. It was only on hearing the facts as a story that his soul became excited.

If we find ourselves in a spiritual winter I suggest the reason is that our faith has become dry. We have not given sufficient attention to the color commentary that is vital to make any experience alive. We have stopped telling and listening to stories. We need to put names and faces on the values we invest in. We need to find our G-d not in isolation but in the context of the human drama.

After all isn't the Torah itself a book of stories. Even the laws are presented to us in the form of a story " And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying...."
Let us find the stories to warm us and give fire to our souls!

Shabbat Shalom

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