Today I am speaking at the country’s largest Jewish book fair in Detroit. My task is to distill Jewish spirituality into 45 minutes, including question and answer!
Fortunately, other rabbis have faced a similar challenge. 2000 years ago they struggled to summarize the essentials of Jewish belief it.
They arrived at three core practices: prayer, study, and good deeds. Each of them brings us to God. And each of us can deepen our faith by looking at the ways they do so.
We often think of prayer as asking for things. As Chicago comic Emo Philips once joked, “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.”
While humorous, this view of prayer belittles it. In Judaism, prayer is not primarily about asking God for things. It is about remembering what things in life are most important. Just as mission statements highlight the purpose and values of an organization, our prayers proclaim the values by which we strive to live.
One of the foremost of these values is gratitude. Prayer helps us rejoice in what we have, rather than focus incessantly on what we do not yet have. Toward this end, in Judaism, prayer is directed not so much at God as it is at ourselves.
When we pray, we look at our lives from an elevated perspective, from what the philosopher Spinoza called the point of view of eternity. To use a familiar metaphor, prayer lifts us out of the trees so we can look at the forest.
A great rabbi once said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.” Studying, learning and engaging with the Bible is the next step to finding God. The Bible is not just for pastors, priests and rabbis. It is for everyone. Studying it enriches our lives. It connects us with our past, present and future.
It is also makes God’s words timeless. The Bible is the word of God. By definition it always has insight to offer and guidance to give. To understand that insight and apply that guidance, we need to study.
Just as a pianist studies the notes of a musical score to interpret and render it properly, we study God’s words to be certain we get it right. We may disagree, but those disagreements are, to use a beautiful Talmudic phrase, “for the sake of heaven.”
God gave us minds for a reason. The more we use them, the more we grow closer to Him.
Study alone, however, is never enough. The ancient rabbis compare study without action to tree branches without roots. The roots of our spirituality are the deeds we perform.
If we know intellectually the importance of honoring our mother and father, yet we fail to take concrete action to do so, we are not fulfilling God’s intention. In other words, the way we live is the highest expression of our faith.
Wish Me Luck! The book I’m talking about is Wisdom for People of All Faiths: Ten Ways To Connect With God.