I had no idea…
The long-awaited Dedication Dinner for the new Aish HaTorah World Center was approaching. For 13 years I had watched the building go up in my neighborhood, Jerusalem’s Old City.
A scheduling conflict meant that my husband and I would be arriving more than an hour late. The day of the dinner, I called the rabbi in charge to make sure that there would be assigned seating, and that, however late we were, our seats would be waiting for us. Frazzled, he told us that he hoped so, and that the banquet was sold out, with large groups of donors from America coming to Israel expressly for this event.
When we arrived at the new building an hour and a half late, we were greeted by a chaotic scene. There were no assigned seats and no seats were left for us. I was taken aback to see a sloppily-dressed waiter rush by with a tray of disposable bowls filled with tomato soup. At $250 a plate, couldn’t they do better than this?
My friend Barbara came over to greet me. I asked if they could fit us in at their table. Barbara found two extra place settings of disposable plastic plates and cutlery and two paper cups and beckoned us over to her table. My husband and I picked up two plastic chairs from the corner and, lifting them above the heads of the diners, managed to reach Barbara’s table. The occupants squeezed over and we were shoehorned in. In the middle of the table were a large plastic plate filled with humus and a bowl filled with barley salad. “Help yourself,” Barbara offered, as I wondered grimly, This is what we get for a donation of $250 per person?
I looked around the room. The median age was 23, and they all looked like locals who were more likely to be found at Burger Bar than this “Gala Banquet.” Where were the wealthy donors from America?
“Where’s Pauline?” I asked Barbara, mentioning a loyal and generous supporter of Aish who surely would not miss the Dedication Dinner.
“Oh, she’s probably downstairs with the donors,” Barbara replied.
“Downstairs?” I asked, perplexed.
“Yes, two flights down in the banquet hall, with the donors. This is the free dinner for the staff.”
Some people spend their whole lives at the wrong banquet.
My husband and I looked at each other in consternation. We jumped up and raced down the stairs to a level I didn’t realize existed. Entering the paneled and chandeliered banquet hall, we were greeted by a magnificent scene. The tables were set with fine china, crystal stemware (two wine glasses and one water goblet per setting), and silky napkins tied with ribbons. Our seats, beautifully carved wooden chairs, were waiting for us. We sat down, and liveried waiters served us the gourmet main course, elegantly presented. We had come close to spending the whole evening at the wrong banquet.
A DEEPER DIMENSION
Some people spend their whole lives at the wrong banquet, because they are unaware of the existence of a deeper, spiritual level. They enjoy the pleasures of this physical world —humus and barley salad —but are oblivious to the more refined and blissful pleasures of the spiritual world.
The turning point in my own life came when I was 20 years old spending my junior year of college in India, and my guru introduced me to the existence of the spiritual dimension. Having grown up in suburban New Jersey going to Hebrew school twice a week, I had never learned the deeper teachings of Judaism, and thus had no inkling that the spiritual dimension existed. I lived my life in two dimensions: the physical and the intellectual (which includes the emotional). My guru taught me that there is a third, spiritual dimension, populated by God and souls and spiritual forces. And not only does the spiritual dimension exist, but it is the most important dimension of reality, because everything that manifests in the physical world is first planned, designed, and set into motion in the spiritual realm.
This world is an amusement park. Few people riding the roller coaster pause to consider that a protracted and intricate process of planning, design, and execution, involving engineering expertise, industrial architecture, and financial finagling in distant offices and factories produced the thrill ride they are now experiencing.
Nothing in my university education had prepared me for the discovery of a third, spiritual dimension.
Superstring Theory postulates that there are nine spatial dimensions. In order to help us common folk wrap our heads around the possibility that there might be more than three spatial dimensions, astronomer Carl Sagan familiarized Americans with Edwin Abbot’s model of “Flatland.” In his “Cosmos” television series, Sagan displayed Flatland as a two-dimensional world on a thin table. When a carrot comes to visit Flatland, the inhabitants perceive only a flat line that grows bigger as the three-dimensional carrot passes through their two-dimensional world, and then disappears. Nothing in my university education had prepared me for the discovery of a third, spiritual dimension. Although God was occasionally mentioned in our synagogue, I was a Flatlander, and God was a carrot passing through my two-dimensional world.
THE MENU AT THE SPIRITUAL BANQUET
Dining at the spiritual banquet means viewing oneself as an immortal soul inhabiting a world created and directed by a loving God. Among the delicacies enjoyed by a person who lives with spiritual consciousness are:
• A sense of meaning and purpose. While Flatlanders, who are oblivious to the spiritual dimension, live in a world of random forces that produce an existential angst, the spiritually conscious person knows that life has a purpose. Judaism maintains that we are born into this physical world in order to improve our character traits, to become more patient, generous, kind, courageous, truthful, etc. Each person has his or her own unique rectification, or tikkun. Cognizant that nothing happens by chance, the spiritually aware person appreciates all of life’s experiences -- even painful experiences -- as grist for the mill of inner growth.
• Gratitude and joy. A person who sees that everything in the world -- from flowers to the immune system -- is bestowed by a benign Creator experiences every heartbeat as a gift. The result is gratitude to God and the joy of being in relationship with the Divine. If you found an iPod on the street (with no identifying signs that would enable you to locate its owner), you’d be happy that you acquired a valuable object for free. However, if your best friend gave you an iPod for your birthday, you’d not only be happy at acquiring the object, you’d be grateful to your friend for the loving and caring that motivated the gift, and you would experience the joy of feeling loved, which is a much deeper pleasure than the joy of acquisition. Similarly, if you believe that God created everything that exists, then every sunset, every tangerine, every glass of water, as well as your ability to see, hear, and think, would be experienced as gifts from a loving God.
• Empowerment. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, zt”l, taught that believing in an omnipotent God leads to personal empowerment: “If we acknowledge that every accomplishment is from God, then we will realize there is nothing we cannot undertake... if God gives us the power.
"It's up to you to take the responsibility and make an effort. God will take care of the rest."
"What can one person do? One person can accomplish anything and everything -- since it's all a gift from God anyway! Now we can understand why the Torah obligates each and every one of us to change the world. Ask a typical college student: ‘Isn't it terrible that Africans are starving to death? What are you going to do about it?’ He says, ‘What can I do about it? Who am I? I'm only one person.’
“Judaism says you can do something. If you believe God's doing it all, if you see how much He's already done for you, then you know that God will help. It's up to you to take the responsibility and make an effort. God will take care of the rest.” [Click here for full article.]
• No fear of death. The person who identifies with his/her immortal soul knows that the soul continues to exist after the death of the body. As the Talmud asserts, this world is a corridor to the world of eternity. Therefore one’s choices take on an eternal significance, creating either positive or negative spiritual forces that accompany one throughout life and after death. The spiritually conscious person uses his/her time maximally, like the winner of the “All You Can Grab in 15 Minutes in the Supermarket” sweepstakes.
• A sense of spiritual gain that outweighs material profit. A person with spiritual consciousness feels exhilarated by spiritual victories, even more than a materialist rejoices over a major killing in the stock market. I know a rabbi who, looking at his American Express bill, noticed a $7000 mistake in his favor. The rabbi and his wife started dancing around the living room. To his perplexed children he explained, “Now I get to do the mitzvah of not stealing by reporting this mistake to the credit card company, and I also get to do the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem [sanctifying God’s Name] by explaining that we are reporting the error because we are observant Jews.” One added benefit of accruing spiritual gains is that they can never be lost by a bear market.
ENTRANCES TO THE SPIRITUAL BANQUET HALL
The spiritual banquet hall has several main entrances. Here are three:
1. The performance of mitzvot. All of the commandments of the Torah are complex means of affecting spiritual reality. Although the Flatlander may regard the Torah’s prohibition against eating pork as based in the physical danger of trichinosis, in fact the Torah prohibits those foods that are spiritually harmful. But just as pre-modern humans had no way of ascertaining the physical harm done by carcinogenic substances, so too post-modern humans have no way of ascertaining the spiritual harm done by pork, shrimp, and lobster. When it comes to the spiritual realms, human beings require the Torah's instruction manual to operate their lives according to the intricate spiritual laws of the universe.
The Torah – God's instruction manual -- reveals the intricate spiritual laws of the universe.
The word “mitzvah” comes from the Hebrew word “tzevet” which means connection. All of the positive mitzvot connect the soul with the highest supernal levels of Divine will, while all of the negative mitzvot guard the soul from severing that mystical connection. When a Jew ties tefillin on his head and left arm, he is completing a spiritual circuit more complex than the motherboard of NASA’s central computer and with more far-reaching effect than the radio signals beamed to distant galaxies. The performance of any mitzvah presses a combination of keys on a spiritual keyboard connected to a supernal system vaster than the World Wide Web: the Cosmic Web.
2. Prayer. Prayer is a means of penetrating the spiritual dimension through words. Every time we ask God for what we want and thank God for what we have, we internalize the spiritual truth that everything, everything comes from the Divine source.
This truth is at odds with popular renderings of “spiritual law,” such as The Secret, that affirm that you can draw to yourself what you desire through the proper focusing of your thoughts. Such methods constitute Flatland prayer, which connects you to the object of your desire.
Judaism enjoins three-dimensional prayer, which connects you to God. And God, rather than automatically fulfilling your requests like a cosmic vending machine, decides what is ultimately best for you and gives you what you need, not necessarily what you want. Thus prayer should be a means of bonding with the Infinite God. When God grants your prayer, you respond with love and gratitude. When God denies your prayer, you reflect on how you can change yourself into a bigger vessel to receive Divine blessings. Ultimately, the relationship with God forged through prayer is more valuable than the particular blessing you requisitioned.
3. Attributing everything to God. Expunge from your vocabulary the words “coincidence” and “luck.” The more you cognize the third dimension, the more you will realize that there are no random forces. You are not “lucky;” you are “blessed.” Bumping into an old friend just when you were feeling lonely is not “coincidence;” it’s “Divine Providence.”
Unfortunately, most people are like the man who was late leaving for an important appointment because he could not find his glasses. After a frantic search, he finally he looked heavenward and prayed, “Please, God, help me find my glasses.” He looked down, and behold! His glasses were on the desk in front of him. Looking heavenward again he declared, “Never mind, God. I found them myself.”
The more you replace randomness with Divine Providence, the more you enter into a dialogue with the Divine.
The more you attribute events and natural phenomena to their Divine Source, the more spiritually conscious you become. The more you replace randomness with Divine Providence, the more you enter into a dialogue with the Divine, where daily happenings become messages from God. When I’m still reading my email an hour after I had determined to go to sleep because I have an important meeting in the morning, and suddenly my computer crashes, I understand that God is telling me, “Sara, it’s time for bed.” When I attempt to order a burgundy sweater on sale on the Internet and discover that they’ve run out of my size, I understand that God is telling me, “Sara, you don’t need that sweater.” (And then, to corroborate the message, a week later, my mother-in-law gives me her gorgeous burgundy sweater.)
David was a young architect from New York who moved to Israel. Looking for a job, he was told about an architectural firm located on King George Street in Jerusalem that might be hiring. When David could not find the address, he asked a passerby with a long gray beard for help.
"What exactly are you looking for?" the man asked.
David explained that he was looking for a specific firm, hoping to get a job as an architect. The man led David to a nearby alley that accessed a concealed courtyard. He pointed to a building on the far end of the courtyard, and told David, “I never heard of the firm you’re looking for, but on the second floor of that building is a different firm that is looking to hire one new architect.”
David got the job. Relating the story to me, David attributed his new job not to “coincidence,” but to Divine Providence. God, he was sure, had sent the bearded man to lead him to the job.
Two years later, David was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. He responded with neither fear nor anxiety. He believed that the same loving God who had given him his job was now sending him this illness. With limited medical intervention and a great deal of spiritual intervention, David experienced a complete recovery.
David is a connoisseur of third-dimensional dining, but the spiritual banquet beckons to every soul. Your seats are waiting for you.