The Baal Shem Tov was known to travel from city to city on a seeming whim. He would gather some followers, jump in a wagon, and travel. Sometimes they would travel for days and other times they would get in the wagon, get out, and be done with their mysterious. Each time there was a lesson, there was a mission, there was a story.
One time the Baal Shem Tov and how followers arrived in a small town right before Shabbos. The Jews of the town, a devout group, were elated to have the honor of hosting the holy Baal Shem Tov. He was given a seat of honor in the front of the shul and they started davening.
A few minutes into the davening, the Baal Shem Tov turned to the rabbi of the shul and informed him that it was stuffy in the shul. The rabbi quickly called over the gabbai and had him move everyone a few feet back. A few minutes later, the Baal Shem Tov again informed the rabbi that it was still really stuffy. Again, the rabbi called over the gabbai who moved everyone back a few more feet. As you probably guessed this happened again. At this point the congregants were crowded up against the back wall of the shul with no where to move. The rabbi didn’t know what to do and asked the Baal Shem Tov how he could make the shul less stuffy for him. Instead of answering the Baal Shem Tov asked if he could address the congregation, and of course, the rabbi invited him to do so.
“Chevra, friends, the room is stuffed, not with people. It’s stuffed with tefilos, with prayers, and with Torah study.” Seeing the quizzical looks on everyone’s face, he continued.
“There’s so much prayer, so much Torah study that takes place in here, but it’s all stuck. None of it ever leaves this room; they never reach G-d in Heaven.”
The Baal HaTanya beautifully explains that a Mitzvah on its own is a physical act, but what makes it spiritual is when it is infused with emotion. The two primary emotions, or the bookends of spiritual emotions are love and fear of G-d. Those emotions, he suggests are the wings of each Mitzvah. When performed with heart, our Mitzvos fly to the highest of heights. Without them, our Mitzvos are grounded, remaining a physical entity, and unable to reach their ultimate destination. And so, the room was stuffed, not with people, but with Mitzvos that were void of spirit, physical actions without wings.
I have been grappling with the challenge of defining spirituality. Is it Mitzvos or is it music? Is it study or sunsets?
The answer, it would seem, is that spirituality is made up of both music and mitzvos, moving sunsets and deep Torah study. Ultimately, Mitzvos are the most spiritual actions we can perform. We can touch the heavens here on earth through the good deeds that we perform. But to get there, to break free from the shackles of this physical world, to give our Mitzvos wings, we need to activate our emotional faculties. Our emotions live in the part of our soul that is more grounded to the physical world. The goal is to climb through our emotions up to the Miztvos, which reside on a higher plane. And when we bring them together, our spiritual life takes off.
This is why it’s important to develop taste in literature, in art, in music – because a refined and sophisticated appreciation for beauty helps make our Mitzvos even more majestic; they enable us to see the physical world with artistic eyes, eyes attuned to beauty. That is not a small thing. “Zeh Keli v’anveihu – this is my G-d and I will make His mitzvos beautiful,” was sung by the Jewish People as they crossed the sea.
This is why it’s important to develop deep self-awareness, because it allows us to bring our emotions, the good, the bad, and the ugly into our every deed. Those emotions are the window into our soul. “kol haneshama t’halel Kah – the entirety of the soul” – from bottom to top – “praises You”
And this is why, explains the Netziv, in this week’s Parsha, the Torah is referred to as a Song – “v’atah kisvu lachem es hashira hazos, write this song” understood by all to describe the Torah. G-d refers to the Torah as a song to remind us to not treat the Torah as prose. Don’t just read the words like an instruction manual. Read it like poetry.
When you read poetry, you listen for the rhythm, for the subtleties, for the space between the words, and for the space between the letters.
Torah observance is not about following a dry legalistic code. It is a life of fiery passion. It is a life of song. But it takes work. And with this definition in mind, I’d like to conclude by offering a few suggestions as to how we could live a more spiritual life. This is not an exhaustive list. These are ideas that have moved me and I hope they can move you as well.
1) Develop taste in the arts. Sensitize your ears and eyes to beauty. Not the obscene paintings and profane poetry. But to the beautiful world we live in. It will open your soul.
2) Spend some time with yourself. 5 minutes, that’s it. Just quiet. It’s not that easy but it’s also not that hard, and it is most definitely worth it. It could be while you walk, while you drive. Just listen to yourself. And get to know your soul.
3) The Chassidic rebbes were masters in demonstrating the song of the Torah. They would take a verse that meant one thing and breathe new and exhilarating life into it. Some go further and help us, in a more explicit way, understand the song of life itself. Dare I suggest that if you’re interested in a more elevated, more emotionally-driven Jewish lifestyle, find some Chassidus that speaks to you. There are English translations of the Nesivos Shalom, an extremely popular book on Chassidic thought. There are translations of the classic work, the Sefas Emes. There are podcasts – listen to Rav Moshe Weinberger from New York, or Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld, who will be joining me Wednesday night on Zoom. Or join us on Shabbos afternoon and study the highly poetic and soul-searing works of Rav Kook.
It might take a long time to find a teacher or book that could open your eyes to the music of Torah and the music of the soul. It took me a long time and every once in a while, I need to move on and find something or someone new. Whatever you do, don’t give up on the search. It’s completely worth the effort.
My final recommendation is music itself. There is certainly non-Jewish music that is spiritual. But I would recommend, in addition to whatever music you listen to, to find some Jewish music that speaks to you. Someone asked me the other day, where music ends, and prayer begins. It’s a good question and I think the answer gets to the core of what we’ve been discussing:
I’ve shared with some of you that I jog listening to Yishai Ribo or Chanan ben Ari. Sometimes I sing along as I run. But I’m not really singing along. I am praying. I am singing the soulful prayerful words of their music. So I don’t know where music ends and prayer begins – they merge and melt into one another – they are part of the continuum of our soul. It starts with our emotions and ends up in Heaven.
This is why music is the perfect analogy for spirituality. There are words and there is a tune, just like there are Mitzvos and there are emotions. It’s only when they come together that music is created.
So find some music that speaks to you and sing and pray and pray and sing; climb the rungs of your soul.
It’s the last Shabbos of this unbelievably trying year. I was speaking to someone the other day who told she hasn’t had the chance to listen to music. For me, it’s the exact opposite. I don’t know if I’d be standing here without music. It has allowed me, time and time again, to break through the fog of these times and lift myself up. Our hope and prayer for this year is that we leave these challenges behind us, but that song, music, soulfulness, and spirituality remain an integral part of our life. That the emotions that have been awakened within, never die down and that we appreciate the poetry of the Torah every day of our life.