12 Iyyar 5774
May 12th, 2014
27th Day of the Omer
The Jewish people have a long history of loving their curmudgeons. The prophet Jeremiah could be best described as grumpy. Isaiah walked around naked for a few years, just to shock people into remembering the poor. Elijah the prophet is welcomed at celebrations of Jewish continuity not because of his indubitable holiness, but because he doubted the longevity of the Jewish people. Every Pesach, every bris, we invite in our biggest grouch.
The curmudgeonly spiritual tradition begins in the Torah itself. Right towards the end of the whole Five Books, Moses (the original grump) says to the Jewish people, “Surely this mitzvah that I command you this day isn’t too baffling for you, nor it is beyond reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to heaven and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it.?” Neither is it on the other side of the sea that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” Deuteronomy 30:11-14
Spiritual crustiness isn’t much in vogue in our time; most of us appreciate spiritual leaders who are inspiring rather than crabby. But we human beings also have a tendency to project the fantasy that spiritual wisdom can only be found far from us. We can get a little too lofty; we dream of the hidden spiritual masters in far-off lands; it’s much harder to see the possibilities for true meaning in our own backyard. That’s why the Torah can sound a little grumpy — we should never stop reaching for the stars, but sometimes what we really need is to be jolted out of our daydreams. The spiritual journey begins with the realization that our feet are firmly planted in the ground upon which we stand.
This year’s B’nai Mitzvah class has a special gift. They are possessed, more and more each day, of a realization that meaningful Judaism is accessible to them, here and now. They have grasped what the Torah teaches, that real spirituality is very close by, in their hearts and in their mouths. They know where they stand. I can hear their understanding when they pray, I can see it when they learn. When they speak, their words ring true.
The thing is, I didn’t teach them this lesson. They gained that insight on their own, through their considerable personal integrity and the impressive amount they’ve accomplished over these last nine months.
The Talmud teaches that human beings can be envious of anyone, except for their children or their students. (Sanhedrin 105b). The statement comes off a bit like paternalistic claptrap, but I’m beginning to understand. It is hard to have negative feelings when people about whom you care grow in wisdom and in depth right before your eyes—on their own merit, no less. Watching this class develop a spiritual vocabulary, confidence in Torah and in prayer, and find themselves again in the heart of Jewish practice fills me with awe.
I bless them to remember one last piece of the Tradition, that the true Torah of kindness is the one that is learned in order to one day be shared with others. I bless them that they recognize their greatness without arrogance or conceit, and use their capacity to bring others like them into Torah and a warm, meaningful relationship with Judaism.