By Rabbi Natan Margalit, Organic Torah
I read the NYTimes. I try to work. I go to the pantry and eat a cookie. I try to work. I read the NYTimes again. It’s been that kind of year. The media is filled with these rueful descriptions (but always with a friendly wink that says “hey, we’re all doing it!”) of 2020’s favorite coping mechanisms: binge munching, binge watching tv series, obsessively checking the news, and on and on. This has been the most stressful, painful, fearful, and depressing year of most of our lives— I’m certainly not immune from all those coping mechanisms.
But that fact is, while I might fall into it, I don’t really want to over-eat, over-watch, obsess or binge. It’s been a long enough run that I’ve learned that these things might give a very short term hit of pleasure, but in the long, or even medium term, they don’t really help. They get me into habits I don’t really want to be in.
My feeling at the end of this year is that I have never been in more need of spiritual practice. When I’m feeling anxious or depressed, I need to re-mind, and re-experience myself enveloped in the sense of kinship with all creation; I need a feeling of belonging and being loved and held in the awesome, sacredness that enlivens everything. That feeling actually does beat out tv, cookies and definitely the news.
I’ve been inspired by the writings of the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro (1889 – 1943), who is most known as the martyred Hasidic Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. Although he lived much of his life studying and teaching in batei midrash (study houses), preaching and writing, mostly indoors, his thought was deeply ecological. This is a testament to the underlying organic patterns that are the essence of the Torah, no matter where we study it.
In one of his commentaries on Succot he retells our Jewish Creation story in a way that I find speaks to us and our contemporary world: God created the First Human by gathering soil from all four corners of the world. When the First Human(s) disobeyed God, sparks of their soul(s) fell back down and were scattered all through the world. So, the whole world is filled with soul sparks, in a myriad of forms. Our job in this life is, and has always been, to recognize our kinship with the world, to connect with those sparks as partners, and together with them serve God. When we do that, we, and the world, feel deep, true joy. If, however, we forget that the world is our partner, with its holy sparks offering us opportunities to serve, and we relate to the world as mere objects, we distort our souls and damage the world. We fall into desperate, self-defeating obsessions and addictions, searching for the true joy that we know is there but have forgotten how to find. (based on Derekh HaMelekh, “Ushpizei Yitzhak,” p. 291- 292, Vaad Hasidei Piaseczna, Jerusalem, 1995)
We have, as a society, largely forgotten our soul connection to the world around us—to our fellow creatures of all kinds, to our fellow humans, to the soil, air and water of the earth. This year, 2020, we have experienced the tragic results of that alienation in the large-scale crises such as we see in our politics, our society and in our climate, and also in the individual lives of so many who are suffering daily as we simply try to get along. As a society we have largely chosen separation, individualism, and mechanized convenience over connection and belonging.
Recovering a sense of connectedness may reach a pinnacle (at least in my estimation) with the deep spiritual work that the Piaseczner Rebbe describes: training ourselves to relate to all of the world as partners, offering opportunities to raise the holy sparks and reveal the miraculous, awesome, sacredness of creation. But it seems to me that there are many small steps we can take to move in that direction: when we stop and remind ourselves to appreciate our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, strangers, rivals, enemies, as all parts of ourselves; when we make a practice of stopping and listening to the wind in the trees to remember that they breathe together with us. When we regularly take out the kitchen scraps to make compost so that we experience the miraculous cycle of transformation that is the beginning of a healthy food system; when we take a bit of dough out before we bake our bread and offer it (for me that means putting it with the compost) as “Challah” to the Source of All Nourishment and remind ourselves of all the awesome and miraculous creations that went into this dough.
These are some of the spiritual practices that I’ve used this year to keep myself sane in this most challenging of years. Perhaps the Organic Torah of 2020 is that even in this year, maybe especially in this year, we are offered opportunities to realize how connected we really are. And perhaps that can move us in the direction of a great and wonderful healing.