Starting a Spiritual Practice in a Practical, Sustainable Manner

I recently subscribed to a blog written by a friend of mine, Arthur Kurzweil, an author, geneologist and magician. The blog, called “Let My People Know,” which offers “Essential Steinsaltz,” or daily teachings from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, author of one of my favorite books on Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petaled Rose, and modern Talmud commentator. Arthur has been a student of Rabbi Steinsaltz’ for many years and even recently wrote a book about his travels with him, called On the Road with Rebbe Steinsaltz, which is a fun and educational read.

In today’s blog post Arthur mentions that he has been corresponding with a man who wants to become “more Jewishly involved.” He then offers a teaching from one of Rabbi Steinsaltz’ books that talks about the fact that we can take on one or two practices to begin our spiritual practice; we don’t have to do all the mitzvot, or commandments, at once. I was struck by this posting, because much of my writing and teaching stresses the same point.

In fact, my booklet, The Priestess Practice, 4 Steps to Creating Sacred Space and Inviting the Divine to Dwell Within It, discusses taking on Shabbat (Sabbath) candle lighting, which happens just once a week — on Friday night — as a spiritual practice. I’ve recently written an essay for an anthology on Shabbat candle lighting that takes the same angle.

When we get overwhelmed by feeling that we have to do too much or spend too much time on religious or spiritual practices to be religiously observant or to lead a spiritual life, many of us end up not doing anything at all. We simply say, “Why bother? If I can’t do it all, there’s no reason to do anything.”

That’s why I recommend practical spiritual practices. Short, sweet, easy prayers, blessings and rituals. These are things you can do all day long without really taking up too much time but that constantly remind you of God and connect you to the Divine. These types of spiritual practices are not only doable but sustainable. And that’s the point. We want to be able to sustain our spiritual and religous practice. Not to start, become overwhelmed and stop.

Anyone, Jew or non-Jew can find such religious or spiritual practices to put to use in their daily life. However, if you are Jewish, Judaism is replete with many mitzvot and traditional practices that fit the bill.

Practical spiritual Jewish practices include saying the traditional morning blessings when you wake up in the morning, saying the blessing for washing hands, kissing the mezuzzah when you enter or leave your home, and saying the Sh’ma when you go to sleep.

Lighting Shabbat candles on Friday nights, a weekly rather than a daily spiritual practice, offers you a chance to take more time and to create a sacred space, invite the Divine Presence into that sanctuary and to little by little extend your practice into a larger and longer one — the full 25 hours of Shabbat. However, you don’t have to do that. If you have no desire to take on all of Shabbat as a spiritual practice, you simply can light the candles each week as an additional ritual during which you can use the prayers and observance as one more way to deepen your Jewish spiritual life.

You get the idea. Little spiritual practices all day long. Longer ones when you feel ready to commit to them.

Anyway, in case you’d like to see what Arthur wrote and to also read the excerpt he provided from one of Rabbi Steinsaltz’ books, I’ve copied today’s posting below. You can find “Let My People Know” and subscribe to it yourself at: http://essentialsteinsaltz.blogspot.com/. You an find out more about Arthur and Rabbi Steinsaltz on Arthur’s website, www.arthurkurzweil.com. Tell Arthur I sent you!

“The Caterpillar Does Not Become a Butterfly in a Single Act”

Recently I’ve been in email correspondence with a young man who has asked me to help him in his process of becoming more involved Jewishly.

Today I found myself insisting that he track down and read Rabbi Steinsaltz’s extraordinary book Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew.

My suggestion prompted me to go back and reread one of the most important chapters in the book for me personally, “All or Nothing: The False Dilemma.”

In that chapter Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:

“All or Nothing: The False Dilemma”

A person who, through neglect, develops a malady in one part of his body, need not, for the sake of consistency, neglect the other parts as well.

So it is with the mitzvot.

The question of “all or nothing” is also invalid from a human, personal point of view.

Though the ba’al teshuvah may wish to see himself as one reborn and to begin his spiritual life with a sense of wholeness, it is important for him to recognize that even in spiritual rebirth it is not possible to take on everything at once.

The people of Israel, in accepting the Torah, did not receive it all at one time. Rather, the process was a protracted one, from the early preparatory stage of the seven Noahide laws to the acceptance of additional mitzvot in Egypt, at Marah, and at Sinai, to the full revelation there that followed.

Similarly, a child raised to be an observant Jew takes upon itself the full yoke of the mitzvot only after long preparation; years of training and the gradual, step-by-step assumption of responsibility according to its intellectual readiness and practical capacity.The essential point is that living beings do not undergo sudden, complete transformations.

The caterpillar does not become a butterfly in a single act but as a result of a gradual process, governed by certain laws.

Within this process there appears to be a series of jumps between distinct stages, and these the ba’al teshuvah also must make from time to time.

But these transitions, too, are neither as quick nor as sharp as they appear.


–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew, “All or Nothing: The False Dilemma,” pp. 18-19

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