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HOME . What's New? . STORIES . ARTICLES .
The Virtual Rebbe
by Rabbi Rami Shapiro
The Teaching and Practice
of Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael
Table of Contents:
- Be Still
- Give the Mind a Bone
- The Crystal Candlestick
- Human Nature
- The Soul
- Zen Judaism
- The Way You Teach
- Prayer or Meditation?
- Just Sit
- Cold Shower
A hasid burst into the study of Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael. "Rebbe," he said breathlessly, "What is the way to God?" The Rebbe looked up from his studies and answered: "There is no way to God, for God is not other than here and now." "Then, Rebbe, tell me the essence of God." "There is no essence of God, for God is all and nothing." "Then, Rebbe, tell me the secret that I might know that God is all." "My friend," Reb Yerachmiel sighed, "There is no way, there is no essence, there is no secret. The truth you seek is not hidden from you; you are hiding from it."
Who is Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael? Reb Yerachmiel is me in moments of spiritual clarity. Reb Yerachmiel comes alive when I meditate and pray; when I sing Hasidic melodies and chant berachot/blessings; when I open myself to the depths of Torah and midrash. Reb Yerachmiel is the rabbi I want to be, and all too rarely am.
When I was asked to participate in this website I knew that Rami did not belong on these pages; Reb Yerachmiel did. So let me share some of the stories and teachings of this virtual sage.
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Reb Yerachmiel once traveled to a distant shul to teach meditation. The room was packed with students. The Rebbe put his finger to his lips and asked the people to be still. "Too noisy," he said after a minute or two. "Please be quiet." The room fell silent. You could hear the anxious breathing of the students. The Rebbe waited. "Shh," he said. "Please, it is still too noisy." The students looked at each other. No one spoke. "Too noisy," Reb Yerachmiel said again. "You cannot meditate until you stop the noise inside. Too much chatter of the mind. Thoughts, feelings, opinions, judgments. Too much noise. You cannot meditate until you stop the noise. And then you won't have to."
Meditation is a distraction. We imagine that if we learn this or that technique we will become holy. What does Torah say: Become Holy? Or Be Holy? It says Be Holy (Leviticus 19:2). There is no becoming, no need to change, no sense of time. Be what you are, holy. Meditation will not make you holy. You are already holy. Meditation simply allows you to realize this fact.
The Psalmist says: "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). If you would be still, quieting body, heart, and mind, and opening to the greater silence, then you would know that "I"-- the self that you are this very moment-- is a manifestation of God.
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"Tell me, Rebbe," a man demanded during Shabbat evening prayers, "Just what is God?" "Tell me," Reb Yerachmiel replied, "Just what is not?"
Can I define the Nameless? Can I place in your palm the truth of the One Who Spoke and the World Came to Be? Of course: God is All. What does it mean to be All? God is the only Reality. God is the Source of all things and their Substance. Thus we read: I am God and there is none else (Isaiah 45:5). Not simply that there is no other god but God, but that there is nothing else but God. "Adonai alone is God in heaven above and on earth below, there is none else" (Deuteronomy 4:39); there is nothing else (ain od) in heaven or on earth but God.
Some would argue that God is a divine spark inside things. Others would argue that God is outside things. God is not inside or outside, God is the very thing itself! And when there is no thing, but only empty space? God is that as well.
Picture a bowl in your mind. Define the bowl. Is it just the clay that forms its sides? Or is it the empty space that fills with soup? Without the space the bowl is not a bowl. Without the sides the bowl is not a bowl. So which is the bowl? The answer is both. To be a bowl it must have both being and emptiness.
It is the same with God. For God to be God, for God to be All, God must manifest as both Being and Emptiness. In Hebrew we call Being Yesh and emptiness we call Ayin. And that is what God is: Yesh and Ayin. Being (Yesh) is that manifestation of God that appears to us as separate entities-- physical, spiritual, and psychological. Emptiness (Ayin) is that manifestation of God that reveals all separation to be illusory: the universe is empty (ayin) of separate beings.
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"Rebbe," a student asked during a Shabbaton, "it is so hard to be holy in this world. I envy those who withdraw and take up the monastic life. Wouldn't we be better off as monks?" "To withdraw from the world is to withdraw from God," Reb Yerachmiel replied. "For the world is God manifest in time and space."
Consider a bar magnet. The magnet has two poles, one positive and one negative. A magnet cannot be otherwise and still be a magnet. The two poles go together and only when they are together can there be a magnet. Even if you cut the magnet in half and in half again, it will always manifest these two poles. No matter how small you slice the magnet, its oneness necessitates the duality of positive and negative poles.
Can we say that one pole precedes the other? Can we say that one pole creates the other? Can we say that the poles create the magnet, or that the magnet creates the poles? No to all of this. The poles and the magnet are of a greater whole.
Yesh (Being) and Ayin (Emptiness) are the poles of God. God cannot be God without them, they cannot be themselves without each other and God. This teaching is called shlemut, the nonduality of God that is the greater whole encompassing unity and diversity, Ayin and Yesh. These three terms, Yesh, Ayin and Shlemut, are crucial to understanding God and almost everything else.
Why did God create the world? Because it is God's nature is to manifest Yesh and Ayin, Being and Emptiness. Creation is the way God is God in time and space. Thus we read: "Be holy for I, the Source and Substance of All Being and Emptiness am Holy," (Leviticus 19:2). Holiness is the natural state of creation. We are holy because God is holy, and we are God manifest in time and place. The Torah's command is to be true to our holiness and to honor the holiness of all other things.
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One morning a group of teenagers asked Reb Yerachmiel: "What is the point of human life? Why am we here?" The Rebbe replied: "If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound?" The children debated this for a while and then the Rebbe replied: "Here is my understanding. Without an ear to register the vibrations of the falling tree no sound is produced. Sound is not a thing but a transaction between things. For there to be sound there must be a falling tree and an ear to hear. Why are we here? We are the other half of the transaction. We are here to hear." "But other beings hear!" a student said. "And dogs can hear sounds human's can't hear. Are dogs more important than us?" "True," Reb Yerachmiel said, "dogs can hear what we cannot. But we can hear what even dogs cannot. We can hear the cry of a broken heart. We can hear the outrage of injustice. We can hear the whisper of empathy. We can hear the silence of death. You are here to listen not only to what everyone else can hear, but also to that which only you can hear."
Why are we here? We are here to know God. We are not here to amass fortunes. We are not here to win wars or competitions. We are not here to earn rewards or make for ourselves a great name. We are here to know God, and through our knowing to transform the world with justice and compassion.
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Give the Mind a Bone
"Rebbe, how can I quiet my mind for meditation?" "I have a beagle," the Rebbe replied, "that never sits still. He is forever scrounging for something to chew on. If I want him to be still, I give him a bone. Then he lays down and chews quietly for hours. The mind is like my beagle. It needs something to chew on."
How do we quiet the mind? I toss mine a bone. We read in the siddur (the Hebrew prayer book): "Let these words which I command you today be upon your heart. Repeat them over and over to your children. Speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you lay down and when you stand up...." This is a guide to meditation. There are only four basic postures a person can take. You are either sitting, standing, walking or laying down. You are always doing some variation of one of these four. So, the text tells us, in addition to whatever else we may be doing, we should be repeating the words God taught us.
What words? Our sages offer may options. I will mention only one. Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, taught the repetition of Ribbono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, one of the names of God. You do not have to take the words literally. When I recite the words I do not get caught up in a theological debate over meanings. I am simply chewing a bone.
I repeat Ribbono shel Olam when I sit in formal meditation, when I stand for davvenen, when I walk from place to place, when I lay down to sleep. No matter what I am doing, I am also repeating Ribbono shel Olam, Ribbono shel Olam.
What does this do? Just as my beagle calms down when he has a bone to chew, so my mind calms down when it has something to repeat. In time it stops chattering altogether, and then I understand the psalmist who said: "For You silence is praise" (Psalm 65).
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The Crystal Candlestick
Once when speaking to a group in a very fancy synagogue Reb Yerachmiel was asked: "Rebbe, tell me how meditation works?" Without hesitation the Rebbe scooped up a crystal candle stick from off the bima and tossed it to the questioner. There was an audible sucking in of frightened breath as everyone focused on the falling crystal. The questioner caught it with a sigh of relief. "That is how meditation works," Reb Yerachmiel said. "The mind becomes focused. There is no thought of this or that, only the task at hand. No separation or opinion, just pure and simple doing."
We are the content of our minds. Our sense of separateness is a by-product of our mind's incessant chatter. When I meditate I allow thoughts and feelings to rise and fall of their own accord. In time, my mind ceases to chatter; self conscious thought ceases. When thought ceases, self fades; when self fades, time ends; when time ends, eternity reigns. When eternity reigns, there is no Yesh only Ayin: Being returns to Emptiness and creation is no more. All is annihilated and empty of separate being.
This is what the Psalmist meant when he sang kalta nafshi, "my soul is obliterated" (Psalm 84:30). The "I" (ani) becomes "Empty" (ayin) of separate self [in Hebrew the two words are spelled with the same three letters, aleph, nun, yod]. This is what our mystics call bittul she-me-'ever le-ta'am va-daat, annihilation beyond reason and knowledge, or, more simply, the end of thought.
With the end of thought and self comes an overwhelming awareness of the unity of all things in God as God. And with this comes a deep sense of compassion and love for Creation. It is this deep love that returns us to the world of Yesh.
Do not imagine that the end of thought is the end of the matter. For the dissolution of Yesh into Ayin is not yet the fullness of God. To fully realize God's shlemut, nonduality, we must bring our awareness of Ayin (Emptiness, oneness) to bear in the world of Yesh (Being, separateness). Bringing the love of Ayin (selfless love for all things as an extension of God) to bear in the world of seemingly disparate and often desperate things that is Yesh is the full exercise of meditation. Emptying the self of thought fills the self with love. Filled with love we cannot but return to the ordinary world of Yesh and seek to effect tikkun ha-olam, repairing the world through love and justice.
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A scholar once approached Reb Yerachmiel at a reception. "Tell me," he said. "If everything is good where does evil come from?" Reb Yerachmiel replied: "I do not say that all is good. I say that all is God."
We cannot speak of spiritual things without also speaking of evil. To understand evil we must go back to first principles, to the nondual nature of God as Yesh (Being) and Ayin (Emptiness). Thus we read: "I am the Source and Substance of Reality, there is nothing else. I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil, I, the Source and Substance of All do all this" (Isaiah 45:6-7).
Evil is not the opposite of God, evil is a manifestation of God. What then is the purpose of evil? Why does God allow evil to exist? It is not a matter of purpose and allowing, it is a matter of the unconditional nature of God. If God is God, God must contain all possibility, everything and its opposite. Good and evil are but two of the infinite possibilities of God. Yet this does not mean that all evil is necessary.
Necessary evil arises from the fleeting and transient nature of the world of Yesh, our everyday world of separate being. Suffering, old age, death, accident, natural disaster, all the pain that arises from the passing of time and circumstance-- these are called "evil" because they thwart our desires and, shatter the facade of permanence. In fact most of what we call "evil" is simply the nature of things in time and space. For all the pain this causes, there is no deliberate evil here.
The proper response to necessary evil is the practice of avodah be-bittul, the ending of separate self and permanence through meditation. Free from the illusion of separation and permanence we are able to embrace the natural suffering of impermanent reality with a deep sense of grace and even humor. We understand that sickness, accidents, the ending of relations both business and personal, old age, death are all part of the nature of Yesh, and while we do what we can to minimize these we do not pretend that we can eliminate them.
One who practices meditation opens to a deep calm that allows her to feel fully and respond constructively to whatever life brings. While alive to the tumult of Yesh, the practitioner of meditation, is yet awake to the calm of Ayin.
Recognizing the inevitability of necessary evil, however, does not excuse the existence of unnecessary evil. Unnecessary evil is the evil we humans do when we refuse to fulfill the dual human obligation of avodah be-bittul and tikkun ha-olam, meditative self annihilation and world repair. Real evil happens when we act in ways that disrupt unity, thatfoster discord, that promote divisions, hatred and fear. Unnecessary evil is real evil.
Real evil is those acts of self gratification which disregard the worth and holiness of other beings. Real evil is generated by a self out of touch with life, a self cut off from God and the compassion, love and justice that that connection with God releases in us. What is the antidote to real evil? On a political level it is justice. On a social level it is compassion. On a personal level it is meditation: unless and until Yesh is opened Ayin there is no hope for true compassion, justice or love.
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"Isn't it true, Rebbe," a student asked during a retreat weekend, "that people are basically good?" "No," replied Reb Yerachmiel, "people are neither good nor bad, but capable of both."
We are created in the image of God who manifests as both Being (Yesh) and Emptiness (Ayin). Thus we, too, must manifest both Yesh and Ayin. In human beings Yesh and Ayin appear as Yetzer ha-Rah and Yetzer ha-Tov, respectively.
The human equivalent of the Ayin, the Yetzer ha-Tov is our capacity for unity. It is the power to bridge differences, to build community, to effect harmony.
Yetzer ha-Rah is the human equivalent of Yesh, our capacity to honor differences. Yetzer ha-Rah sees diversity where the Yetzer ha-Tov sees oneness. Yetzer ha-Rah sees everything apart from everything else. Yetzer ha-tov sees everything as a part of everything else. Why call one of these capacities rah, "evil"? Because without the balancing insight of the Yetzer ha-Tov, the Yetzer ha-Rah's insistence on separate self and independence pits one life against another, destroying any hope for community, justice and compassion, all of which rely on the notion that we are at root interconnected.
Yet a world without Yetzer ha-Rah is no less evil. Without the capacity to recognize and respect individual differences, justice is reduced to conformity, compassion to pity, and community to uniformity. Thus our sages taught that without the Yetzer ha-Rah a person would not marry, or build a home, or raise a family, for these rely on our ability to differentiate and celebrate diversity (Genesis Rabbah 9:7).
A healthy world needs both Yetzer ha-Rah and its welcoming of and respect for individuality, and Yetzer ha-Tov with its insight into interdependence and harmony.
The human mind contains both inclinations and must use each to balance the other.
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A man grabbed Reb Yerachmiel's arm one Shabbos evening after services. "Rebbe, I fear for my soul!" "No need," Reb Yerachmiel said softly: "It is your soul that needs to fear for you."
We cannot talk of human nature and ignore the soul. Yet our conventional understanding of soul is horribly misguided.
God is both Being and Emptiness (Yesh and Ayin). The former is transient, the latter is timeless. Only the former posits separate selves or souls. The latter knows only oneness. Eternal life in the world to come is a concept arising from the desire of the Yetzer ha-Rah, the inclination toward separation and permanence, to deny its eventual and inevitable dissolution in death. It is fear of death that leads us to imagine souls and an after-life. In truth there is none of this.
Sadly, in our efforts to bolster what is ultimately a false sense of self and eternity, we miss the real immortality of which we are a part. Ayin (that aspect of reality that is empty of self, soul, and separateness) is deathless, birthless, and timeless. And we humans are no less Ayin than Yesh.
We are like waves on an ocean. From the surface each wave appears unique, independent, and transient. Yet beneath the surface all waves are one, interdependent, and eternal. From the perspective of the wave we are born, we live, and we die. From the perspective of the ocean there is no birth, no separate lives, no death.
From the perspective of Yesh we experience birth and death, but from the
perspective of Ayin we are birthless and deathless. Insofar as we realize the perspective of Ayin we are calm, compassionate and holy. Insofar as we focus only on the perspective of Yesh we are anxious, frightened, and angry. The challenge is to see ourselves as wave and as ocean, Yesh and Ayin, simultaneously.
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"Rebbe," a woman asked during an ecumenical panel discussion, "Aren't all religions equally true?" "No," said Reb Yerachmiel, "all religions are equally false."
The relationship of religion to Truth is like that of a menu to a meal. The menu describes the meal as best it can. It points to something beyond itself. As long we use the menu as a guide we do it honor. When we mistake the menu for the meal, we do it and ourselves a grave injustice.
The ultimate aim of all authentic religion is to awaken the individual to God and thereby transforming society with universal justice and compassion. It does this in two ways:
If a religion leads to nonduality without insisting upon an end to diversity; if it teaches compassion and how to manifest it; if it demands holiness and points the way toward it, then it is good. But if it holds its truth to be the only truth; if it insists that its followers alone are holy; if it offers salvation at the edge of a sword; if it promotes self without teaching selflessness; if its love of God excuses hatred of others and betrayal of Creation, then it is a an evil and dangerous faith.
- First, it posits rules of ethical behavior that help us live as if we were awake even if we are still asleep. Authentic religion urges us to be holy because God is holy even if we don't yet see holiness for ourselves. This is the right use of the menu.
- Second, religion teaches some form of meditation leading to the realization of God as the Source and Substance of All and Nothing. That is, it leads beyond itself to God. That is the right encounter with the meal.
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A professor once asked: Are you not simply dressing Zen in the tallit of a Jew? Reb Yerachmiel replied: "Truth is Truth. There is no Zen truth or Jewish truth. If something is True it is true for all. I seek out Truth and share it in my own way. Where do I seek it? In the ordinary experience of my everyday life. Where do I find the words to convey it? In Torah and her commentators. In the Jewish mystics and hasidic rebbes. I do not borrow from Zen. I cannot help if Zen is true. I only worry that I am true."
Before we are Jews or Buddhists we are humans. As humans we are heirs to the genius of our kind. Krishna, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, St. Francis, Aurobindo, Krishnamurti are no less my ancestors than Moses, Micah, Hillel and the Baal Shem Tov. We can learn from all of them, but some will speak more powerfully to us than others. This is a matter of personal predisposition and parental nurturing. I was raised a Jew and while I have studied with many teachers from many faiths, it is Torah that speaks to me most profoundly. For some reason, and I do not pretend to know what that reason is, I hear the Psalmist's Be Still and Know more loudly and more cogently than Buddha's. They may be pointing toward the same Reality, but the finger that guides me is the Jewish one.
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The Way You Teach
Reb Yerachmiel was walking in his meditation garden. A man approached him and demanded: "Rebbe, my rabbi says liberal Judaism stands for nothing. He says it is just an excuse for Jews to be Gentiles. What do you say to that?" The Rebbe replied: "There are only two kinds of Jews, the serious and the not serious. The serious come in many fine flavors. The not serious in only one-- bland."
I teach what I call One Foot Judaism in deference to Hillel who, when approached by a Gentile demanding to be taught the whole of Torah while the great sage stood on one foot, stood on one foot and said: "What is hurtful to you, do not do to others. This is the whole of Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and study it."
Where Hillel's Judaism had but one pillar, mine has five:
Serious Jews can differ as to how to engage each pillar, but they cannot choose to ignore them.
God. Without a sense of God as the nondual Source and Substance of all Being and Nothingness Judaism is reduced to ethnicity. Our entire purpose as Jews is to realize godliness in every aspect of our lives. Realizing godliness means that we make the attributes of God the norms of humankind. What are the attributes of God? Mercy, kindness, patience, love, honesty, forgiveness, justice (Exodus 34:6-7).
Torah. Torah is the evolving wisdom of the Jews rooted in our sacred texts. Why are these texts sacred? Because they have proven themselves to be accurate guides to godliness. The serious Jew must learn basic Hebrew and study Torah weekly.
Israel. Israel refers to our obligations to the Jewish people. The serious Jew must identify as a Jew. She should have mezuzot on the doorposts of her home. She should wear a Magan David. The serious Jew must support world Jewry and work toward the freedom and dignity of Jews worldwide. The serious Jew must support the Zionist ideal of Israel as a moral and ethical light unto the nations. She should visit Israel as an adult, and support those organizations that make the Zionist ideal a reality.
Mitzvot, those uniquely Jewish behaviors that connect us to God and engage us in those ethical and moral acts that flow from godliness. While different people will focus on different Mitzvot, no serious Jew can fail to observe Shabbat, holy days, kashrut (ethical consumption), tzedakah (generosity), gemilut chesed (kindness), and tikkun ha-olam (world repair).
Mentschlichkeit, being a godly human being. Among the obligations that flow from this are avoiding hurtful speech, giving tzedakah, practicing teshuvah, self evaluation and ethical perfection, and working for tikkun ha-olam, the perfection of the world through universal justice and compassion.
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Prayer or Meditation?
A woman came to Reb Yerachmiel and said: "I have been studying with a Buddhist teacher who has given me clear instructions as to how to meditate. I find it very helpful. I told this to my rabbi and he got angry with me, claiming I am abandoning my faith. He said I should cease my meditation and learn to pray. Rebbe, what do you think I should do?" Reb Yerachmiel replied: "Your rabbi is half right. You should learn to pray. And what should you pray? Just this: Dear God, grant me the courage to stick with my meditation."
While meditation is essential to spiritual practice, is is not sufficient. I teach a ten point program of spiritual practice called Minyan:
Avodah be-bittul, meditation. Silent sitting twenty to thirty minutes each morning to open the boundaries of Yesh (separate being) within the greater oneness of Ayin (emptiness and unity).
Gerushin, recitation of a sacred phrase. I recite Reb Nachman's Ribbono shel Olam both during meditation and during the day.
Musar, daily study of traditional teachings that remind me to be holy.
Kavvanah, focused attention. I set my computer to 'beep' periodically as a reminder to close my eyes, slow my breathing, and recite Ribbono shel Olam for a minute or two.
Teshuvah, self perfection; taking time each evening to assess my behavior and see what I can do to make tomorrow a little more kind and just than today.
Tzedakah, generosity; making sure that I give three to ten percent of my income to people in need.
Gemilut Chesed, random acts of lovingkindness; consciously seeking opportunities to be of service to others.
Pitron Chalomot, dreamwork. Dreams often contain insights into the spiritual maturation process that cannot be made conscious any other way. I keep a journal, pen and penlight by my bed and jot down my dreams upon waking. I study them as I would a text of Torah, looking for deeper meanings and insights.
Kashrut, ethical consumption. I cannot live without consuming life, so I take care to live lightly and well; eating lower on the food chain, shopping wisely, maintaining a healthy body and mind.
Shabbat, setting aside the seventh day of the week for mindfulness; living one day as I would like to live everyday-- with attention, justice and kindness.
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A rabbi once came to Reb Yerachmiel after a meditation workshop. "A member of my congregation, a philosopher at the state college, asked me to teach him how to meditate. How should I instruct him?" Reb Yerachmiel replied: "Teach him the prayer for moving his bowels, and teach him to recite it every time he does so. Don't let him read on the toilet. He must just sit and pray."
Spirituality is not different that everyday life. It is doing everyday things with a clear and attentive mind. Doing everyday things with a clear and attentive mind awakens us to the fact that we are both apart from and a part of everything else. We discover that from the perspective of Yesh we are unique irreducible, irreplaceable manifestations of God. And we discover from the perspective of Ayin that we are totally interconnected with and dependent upon all other manifestations of God. We are awake to our being and our emptiness simultaneously. And from this we awake to God, the Source and Substance of both. We make too much of spirituality. We package it, market it, and pretend we can own it. We imagine it to be a thing we can study, practice, master, and use. Worse still, we equate spirituality with feeling.
Spirituality is not a feeling. You may have many different feelings arise during your meditation. You may feel loved and loving. You may feel angry and frightened. You may feel you want to hug the whole world. You may feel like strangling your best friend. Feelings arise and fall of their own accord. Spirituality has nothing to do with it.
Spirituality is not religious law and tradition. Spirituality is universal, while religions are particularistic. Religion is a natural human response to an authentic spiritual experience, but all too often religion acts as a substitute for that experience. We are told to believe in God, and not taught how to experience God for ourselves.
Spirituality is not a thing or a feeling. Spirituality is paying attention. Spirituality is being present to what is happening around and within you. Spirituality is living in the world with compassion and justice. Spirituality is making the world a little better for your having been born into it. Spirituality is meeting God in the ordinariness of our everyday lives.
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During a retreat on spirituality a woman rose and said: "I have no need of these practices. I feel spiritual all the time without doing anything." Reb Yerachmiel looked at her more a moment and said: "The next time you have an urge to be spiritual, take a cold shower. Then dry off and do something kind for someone else."
Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro is the author of:
He founded the Rasheit Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which sponsors the on-line resource, The Virtual Yeshiva.
- Wisdom of the Jewish Sages
- Minyan, Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity
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