May 19, 2024
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In his spiritual memoir, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his first trip to Oxford University as a young man in 1916. A scholarly boy, Lewis traveled to this fabled center of learning, known as the “city of dreaming spires,” with tremendous anticipation. But upon leaving the train station, Lewis became more and more bewildered; could this succession of “mean shops” and unimpressive streets really be Oxford? Lewis walked through the unimpressive town until he reached open country; only then did he turn around and look. “There, behind me… never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers. I had come out of the [train] station on the wrong side and been all this time walking into the mean and sprawling suburb of Botley. I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life.” The glories of Oxford, its spires and towers, were right behind Lewis, after all. All he had to do was turn around.

The spiritual seekers of our community—and there are more than we realize!—are frustrated; they are yearning for “spires and towers,” but finding none. Though we constantly fill our days with the rituals and obligations of Judaism—religious, communal and social—we are left with a gnawing feeling that somehow, we are missing the main course. For the most part, Judaism is perceived and experienced as a set of ritual and ethical practices—practices that may make us better people, but which have little relevance to our deep, inner yearning for a relationship with the eternal. We know that there must be something deeper, something far more extraordinary in Judaism—if only we knew where to look.

In a recent interview, Rav Moshe Weinberger captures this feeling of frustration: “I find that people have heard thousands of sermons proving how one pasuk and another can be reconciled, and explaining whether or not we can eat from disposable tin pans without toiveling them… However, there is a feeling that the broader picture of all these details is not coming together. How do they coalesce? How do they come together to bring me to a greater, more effusive and more intense relationship with God?” Rav Weinberger quotes Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, who wrote that the last generations before the Messiah comes will no longer be satisfied with only the details of Judaism; they will demand to see the forest, the panoramic view. (Jewish Action, Winter 2014) It is this desire for something “bigger” that has driven many young Modern Orthodox Jews to explore Chasidic thought.

“I wander through each chartered street, near where the chartered Thames does flow. And mark in every face I meet, marks of weakness, marks of woe. In every cry of every Man, in every Infant’s cry of fear, in every voice, in every ban, the mind-forged manacles I hear.” (William Blake, London, 1794)

In every face he meets, Blake finds “marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Our community has its share of woes—political, financial and more; the Jewish people have never lacked difficulties and challenges. But worst of all are the “mind-forged manacles,” the mental prisons of our own creation—the tragic ways in which we limit our experience of Judaism to the technical and superficial.

The first step towards a deeper experience of Judaism is to acknowledge that something fundamental, something essential, is missing from our religious lives. In other words, the first step towards a more authentic Judaism is to yearn for something deeper—to feel a profound emptiness in our lives, an emptiness that can only be filled by a personal relationship with our Creator.

This, fundamentally, is the theme of the month of Elul. “Ani Ledodi, v’Dodi Li”; I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is to me. Elul is the “big picture” month, when we remember that the ultimate goal of all the rituals and obligations of Judaism is to achieve a real, personal—and even romantic!—relationship with our Creator. Elul is the antidote to “transactional” religion; it is our opportunity, finally, to see the spires and towers of Judaism.

Rabbi Elie Mischel is the spiritual leader of Synagogue of the Suburban Torah, Livingston.

By Rabbi Elie Mischel

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