So you're speeding down the Highway of Life, doing 90, and it feels wonderful. Every pleasure out there is available, for a price -- and as they say, it's a buyer's market. At every turn in the Road, there's yet more shopping, more power, more money, more food -- an abundance of everything you could possibly wish for.
Life is going so great that you almost miss that little sign -- located a long, long way down the Road. It says: DEAD END.
That's the way it goes. While life is, we hope, a good, long experience, death is forever. And the way most of us are living, you'd think we're immortal. Between all our cravings, all our efforts to stay comfortable, and all the silencing we do to our fears, it's a wonder we have time to think about our most important part -- our soul. Because while we may succeed in neglecting it as we speed through Life, there's no avoiding it when we leave our bodies behind after death.
The soul has never showed up on a CAT scan.
A soul, you say?! The soul has never appeared anywhere in Gray's Anatomy. It can't be measured with a blood test. Never showed up on a CAT scan. Yet most, if not all of us, are aware that we do have souls. God endowed each human being with a piece of the Divine, the part of us that is willing to pursue a spiritual pleasure -- e.g. giving charity -- that comes at the expense of more material comfort.
We'd expect that this precious, holy soul would propel us upward into a constant state of spiritual yearning. Yet that's not the way it works. God thrust the soul into an earthly, corporeal body -- and the rest is history. Widescreen TV and Ben & Jerry's Super Fudge Chunk shout at us and pull us away from focusing on the big (eternal) picture.
It's clear to any thinking human being that the purpose of life goes much deeper. And even non-thinking humans are occasionally forced to ponder the reason for existence -- either during times of crisis, or upon being asked by a precocious child.
But most of the time, we're fighting against the tide. So how can the soul get a fair hearing?
By contemplating the "Dead End" sign.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explains: Our existence in this world is to prepare for the Next World, where we will reap the greatest eternal reward: basking in the Divine Presence. In other words, the purpose of life is that we live to die.
How does this play out in reality?
On an average day, I find myself involved in many activities. Some may be more mundane; others may be downright petty; a few of them might actually be meaningful. I might begin the day by taking care of my kids (meaningful), then go grocery shopping (mundane), then indulge my temptation to see if there's anything new to look at on the Marshall's clearance rack (petty).
If I were to take a cross-sectional look at my life, can I honestly say that I am fulfilling the purpose of my existence? Perhaps some of the time. Certainly not most of the time. And yet I can justify myself by saying that I am aiming for progress, not for perfection. I'm just doing the best I can, and as long as I keep going upward, I'm okay.
If I neglect my soul in this world, what can I hope for in the Next World?
But here's the rub: At the end of a (God-willing) long life, my soul will have its turn to come forward and be appraised. After a lifetime of grocery shopping, trips to the mall, good food, and other sensual pleasures, how will my soul appreciate basking in the light of the Divine?
A recent experience hit home for me.
A Shabbos guest bestowed upon us two bottles of expensive, fine wine. My husband and I are not wine-drinking types, but when our guest began to describe how special the wine was, we were interested to sample it. He excitedly poured us each a glass, and we tentatively took a sip. After the initial shock, it was all we could do not to burst out laughing! The wine was horrendously vile! Yet our friend, a wine connoisseur, enjoyed it immensely. In a sense, Godliness is like fine wine. The connoisseur, who regularly develops his or her taste for Godliness, will savor it -- in this world, as well as the Next. But the neophyte, who drives recklessly through life, never stopping to think about the divine soul -- how can he expect to enjoy basking in the light of the Eternal in the Next World?
It is said that the way a soul will perceive whether it is in Heaven, or whether it is in Hell, depends upon the way that soul journeyed through life. To one person, the experience of being in the constant presence of God is immeasurably pleasurable (true Heaven!). Such a person has nurtured and refined his soul, and is finally realizing the reward for his efforts. Another person, though, is in utter agony. Having had no prior experiences with God, having ignored his soul all his life, being in the Divine Presence is foreign, confounding -- even hellish!
Most people today are experts in nurturing their physicality. Are we hungry? Then we eat. Thirsty? We drink. Are we unhappy? Then we eat, drink, shop, lash out at others, or go to therapy. Are we in the mood of escaping? We watch a movie. Need a thrill? Ride a roller-coaster.
There's no question that when it comes to the corporeal, it's easy to find. Can you imagine someone saying: "I just can't seem to get in touch with my materialism!" You'd give them directions to the nearest mall, and that would solve it. But when it comes to "How can I get in touch with my soul?", the answer is less simple So here a few of the ways that I've found to increase my appreciation for Godliness -- in immense, intense ways.
Study alone, or with a partner. Do it on the phone or in person. All large cities offer evening classes for adults, and a group called Partners in Torah helps to partner up people who are interested in learning Torah by telephone.
Better yet, take a "learning vacation" for two weeks in Israel. Imagine the spiritual lift of breathing the holy air, immersed in Torah study, away from the office pressures.
If you're already studying, but having trouble connecting to your inner self, try learning something else, or with someone else. As the Talmud says: A person only learns what his heart desires.
Can't get out, or find the time to study? Then maximize your commuting and housework time. With the wide variety of Torah tapes, CDs and MP3s, there is something for everyone -- speakers who are funny, speakers who are solemn, and every topic under the sun - history, philosophy, relationships, you name it. Find tapes online (www.aishaudio.com), in stores, in tape libraries in your community, or borrow them from friends. It doesn't go in one ear and out the other. It goes in both ears, down to your soul.
The kind of meditation I'm familiar with has nothing to do with yoga or gurus. It's just plain old sitting quietly and trying to block out the noise of Life, straining to get in touch with Godliness. This can be done at any time of day or night, in any kind of position, and employing any kind of technique. My aim in meditating is to take that proverbial "sip" -- to block out the static and treat my soul to a small taste of spirituality, after neglecting it for so long.
I have observed the following: materialism and spirituality work in inverse proportion: the more heavily a person values materialism, the less he or she values spirituality, and vice versa. So once we begin to fill ourselves with spirituality, we no longer need all those materialistic band-aid solutions which we mistakenly use to plug the bottomless pit. In fact, we find out that that "bottomless pit" was really our Godly soul, crying out for some nourishment. And to think we had tried to feed it Versace and donuts!
So go ahead -- eat, drink, and be merry. But do yourself a favor -- one that will stand you in good stead for a very long time (an eternity, in fact). Give your soul the royal treatment today. I've tried it, and it's exhilarating. Absolutely intoxicating. Like fine wine. Or so the connoisseurs tell me...