The Power of a Spiritual Foundation in Our Quest for Wholeness

by Rabbi Jill Maderer

Last week, at my annual physical, I brought the health forms my doctor is required to complete, so that I may serve on faculty for two weeks this summer at our Reform Movement’s Jewish camp, Harlam.  The camp does not provide a different version of the health form for faculty, so it can be humorously confusing for the doctor to complete questions that were clearly created for an adolescent.  You can imagine.  As the doctor continues to read down the list of possible ailments, there’s this: does the camper have a problem with eating disorders?  With cutting? The doctor looks up at me.  “What kind of camp is this?!  A place for troubled teens?”  “No,” I reply, “it’s just Jewish camp.  We worry a lot.”

And truth– there is a lot to worry about.   When I think of what it means to raise children and adolescents or to exist as adults in our world, the challenges to a healthy and whole life are overwhelming.  Yet there are real resources in our quest for wholeness.  There are paths to the peace described in the priestly blessing of our Torah portion which reads: May God bless you and keep you, may the light of God’s spirit shine on you and be good to you, may God’s presence be with you and bring you peace.

In his recent column, “Building Spiritual Capital,” David Brooks cites psychology professor Lisa Miller.  Spiritual awareness, Miller asserts, surges in adolescence, at the same time as depression and other threats to well-being.  Spiritual quest, is nature’s way of responding to the normal crisis of being a teenager.  Adolescents commonly suffer a loss of meaning, confidence and identity as they ask fundamental questions of themselves. Some of them try to fill the void with drugs, gang activity and even pregnancy. But others are surrounded by people who have cultivated their spiritual instincts. The impact of spirituality extends far beyond adolescence. For instance, adults who consider themselves highly spiritual at age 26 are, according to Miller’s research, 75% protected against recurrence of depression.  That, is what Brooks calls, spiritual capital.

I can’t speak to the empirical data, but I can observe the power of a spiritual foundation. And as a congregation it is our unique mitzvah to spark conversations about the mysteries of the world and to the values and purpose of our own lives.  How do we cultivate our spiritual resources and those of the next generation?

I believe we build a spiritual foundation when we connect beyond boundaries.  This week, I attended Tribe 12’s Launch Night, where young adult social entrepreneurs presented the projects they hope will shape the Jewish community and the world.   One of the entrepreneurs, Ben, presented an online international pen-pal system.  Ben was born in El Salvador and was adopted by a Jewish family in the Philadelphia area.  Something I would call spirituality was cultivated in Ben, so that he felt totally loved and a part of his Philadelphia family, and yet also felt himself on a quest to connect personally across the globe.  Ben wants to help others broaden their perspectives and when he speaks about different cultures across many borders, he says, “we need to be friends.”  Ben seeks to make the world smaller, as he connects with and perceives himself as a part of something greater than himself.  For Ben and for us, connecting across borders can build perspective, cultivating spirituality.

I also believe we build a spiritual foundation when we connect with our roots. With this week’s reports that Hamas tortured Palestinians during the 2014 War, reports that Hamas fired a rocket into Israel a few days ago, ongoing fear about threats to security and ongoing challenges in the pursuit of Israel’s democracy…  in addition to political, social justice and security responses, the Jewish community response has consistently included spirituality.  In recent years, progressive, Israeli Jewish congregations have emerged.  These new developments in Israel’s spiritual life have been built by sabras–that is, native Israelis.  One congregation, Nava Tehila, describes: Our prayer is experiential because we are constantly seeking ways of connection to the Living God in each and every moment.

In a land where the majority of non-Orthodox Jews consider their religion to be simply, Israeli, there are some who seek to go deeper.  Even as these Israelis get to daily speak the language of our ancient ancestors, walk on the sidewalks where King David stepped his foot, and see the stars from the same perspective as did Abraham and Sarah — even these Israelis find themselves on a quest to connect more deeply with their roots, as they seek wholeness in the words of ancient Jewish prayer.  For Israelis and for us, connecting with our roots can cultivate spirituality.

I believe we build a spiritual foundation when we honestly talk about what we understand to be true.  Our Rodeph Shalom clergy team excitedly anticipates introducing you to our new High Holy Day prayerbook, or Machzor, called Mishkan HaNefesh, this fall.  For a taste, here is a reading that interprets the Vahavta:

When you love Adonai Elohecha body and soul

these things I ask of you will be possible:

To answer your children’s questions about Me

and believe your answers yourselves

To connect religion to your everyday comings and goings…

for example, when you hug them in bed at night

with tender words–Shema Yisrael

or when you think to say Modeh Ani

in the rush of getting them up and out in the morning

To be alert enough to open doors for your children

in every waking moment

and when they dream.

And finally, to remember just why all these things matter:

They matter because I, Adonai Elohecha,

brought you and your children out of Egypt

to be God for you.

I am your God.

And when you do these things,

I will be your children’s God.

When will Adonai Elohecha be our children’s God?  When we listen to their hard questions and when we discover meaning with them. When our deepest truths, our spirituality, is a part of our conversations with the next generation, that’s when parenting, teaching and mentoring, cultivates spirituality.

Now, to be clear, when I speak of the power of a spiritual foundation, I am not saying that is all we need.  Spiritual capital does not mean that the self-destructive teen doesn’t need mental health services–of course she does. And developing spiritual capital does not mean that the Israelis don’t need serious diplomacy and security–of course they do.

But spiritual capital is another resource we can offer so that when we, our families, our Jewish people and our world face challenges, we are not in isolation.  As a synagogue this is our mitzvah: to spark conversations about the mysteries of the world and the values and purpose of our own lives.

This Shabbat, may we tune in to our spiritual journeys and may we invite others to join the conversation, that our prayer may be answered when we say, Yisa Adonai panav elecha, v’yasem l’cha shalom, May God’s presence be with you and bring you wholeness.