I have been taught that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.
The Jewish text known as Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) likes to categorize people in a variety of interesting ways. It speaks of seven characteristics that typify a wise person (5:9), four character traits among people having to do with open- or closed-fistedness and tzedakah (5:12, 5:15), four kinds of temperaments (5:13), and four types of students (5:14, 5:16, 5:17). Just from these categories, you notice that what is valued is study and charity/righteousness (tzedakah).
What Pirke Avot noticeably does not do is categorize people on the basis of God belief. This is because for Jews behavior, not belief, is what counts.
However, my riff on all of this is that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe in signs and those who don’t. You might think that there is a third category, as well: those who sometimes believe in signs, but these folks really belong in the first category; they are non-committed believers.
I fall into the believing category.
As a committed student of Mussar (a Jewish spiritual practice in which one cultivates soul-traits called middot), I have to fall into the believing category. The whole spiritual thrust of the practice is to understand that an obstacle is placed in my path in order to teach me something and help me grow. With practice I learn which soul-trait/middah I need to call upon and cultivate in that situation — whether it be faith, patience, generosity, humility, compassion, etc.
Who else is placing the obstacle and wanting me to grow if not for God?
So, yes, I believe in signs.
Those of you who know me also know that I have a bad back. In 2001, the pain left me suicidal.
When the pain left, however, I learned gratitude, a real overflowing tears-of-thanksgiving, O-my-God, I’m-in-love-with-the-world kind of gratitude, and a gratitude for the community of people who had helped me through — those who did my laundry, brought me food and medication and company, as I was on the top floor of a fifth-floor walk-up.
My immediate take on the situation was that God had purposefully “zapped” me with pain in order to teach me gratitude in a way I had never understood it before. S/He looked down at a very capable but very selfish woman and said, “This woman needs a lesson or two. Let’s start with gratitude.” And ZAP! And from there (though I was already a rabbi in the world) my real, authentic spiritual life began.
My friends and colleagues argue with me about this theology of mine. Some of them even snicker, I imagine. But it is my theology, certainly not one I impose on clients who come for spiritual counseling, but the one I hold for myself. It even has a name: issurim shel ahavah (challenges of God out of love) .
So when I came home to New York from Jerusalem, trying desperately to hold onto my “Jerusalem consciousness,” it took THREE obstacles/signs for me to realize that God was telling me something. My head was still in the clouds, I wasn’t looking for signs yet.
- My windshield cracked last Friday.
- My back went out on Monday.
- The pipes burst in our Massachusetts home (apparently on Friday, but we didn’t find out until Monday — after my back went out).
And the remarkable thing is that I was unusually equanimous about all of them. My Jerusalem spiritual consciousness had permeated my physical reality/the world of assiyah, to such an extent that I wasn’t undone by any of them as I would have been before our Jerusalem trip. I pretty much kept it all in perspective.
My challenge moving forward is this: How will I keep my Jerusalem consciousness alive so that the physical obstacles of life can be handled with equanimity and grace into the future? Will I be able to continue honoring the spiritual strides I’ve made?
So, I believe that that’s what God was telling me: there IS a way to handle day-to-day obstacles with equanimity and grace. S/He was testing me, showing me how far I’d come.
First the cracked windshield, a relatively minor inconvenience. Passed the test. No real biggie, but a great metaphor. (As Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”)
Then the pipes, a bigger headache. Of course, we didn’t get the message before Shabbat, so we flew through the weekend without a care (except for Chaim being sick).
Since we didn’t get that message, what next? Hmmm. Another sign: my back. Now that is a scary one. Every episode harbors fears of excruciating, suicidal pain, the potential of back surgery, utter misery and depression.
But even this time, I responded with uncommon calm: called the physical therapist and asked if I could see him without a prescription from my orthopedist. Yes. Took my pain meds. Didn’t panic/project.
Then we received the news about the pipes. Chaim at first refused to believe the news since the source (our crazy neighbor) was suspect. But then we had confirmation, and Chaim went up to the house (a five-hour bus ride while sick — his car was sitting in MA since leaving for Israel, and I had to work and needed my car) to deal with it — insurance adjustor, plumber, cleaner. He, too, not typically an administrative maven, handled it all with aplomb, relieving me of any additional stress.
Some people get to this level of equanimity with meditation, some with prayer, some with Mussar. I counsel people on how to use these spiritual interventions all the time. (It doesn’t mean I myself have perfected them!) This time, I got there primarily with the help of Jerusalem consciousness, which is probably a combination of all of the above, and then a little extra mystical something.
I will add “think Yerushalayim l’maalah, the Jerusalem of the spiritual upper spheres” to my list of spiritual interventions.
May I be privileged to call upon this Jerusalem consciousness and benefit from it as future obstacles/nuisances/curveballs inevitably come my way.
Today is Rosh Hodesh (the new moon) of Adar. Tradition teaches that “When Adar enters, joy increases!” May it be!
Chodesh tov — wishing you a good month.
February 11, 2013/1 Adar 5773