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Modernity & Spirituality, Can it Work?

Sunday, 24 November, 2013 - 11:18 pm

 questions.jpgMany people struggle with the question of what does our Jewish identity mean while living in the 21st Century in a rapidly changing world. It often almost seems impossible to even consider living a spiritual, meaningful and purposeful life in our multi-faceted world with all of its many distractions and challenges.

We think back to the Jews in Shtetl who were clustered in their little cozy corners and had Judaism available and accessible right there in their communities and villages. They lived their simple lives with meaning, ritual and a deep and meaningful relationship with G-d. They weren’t caught up in a fast changing world that offered the kinds of opportunities and distractions that we are faced with today and life seems to have been way more simple back then. Compare that to today, where  to be an engaged Jew who is mindful of observing the traditions and Mitzvot and living a life that is enriched and full of Judaism, just doesn’t seem quite so possible or at least in a manner that remotely resembles the beautiful depth that our ancestors lived with. In fact it almost seems naïve to even expect to be able to live a life like that in today’s modern world, and why even bother!

Yet the truth is, the challenge of this powerful question is not new, for in reality generations of Jews have struggled with this question and with the challenge that it presents. Over the years, all kinds of approaches have been suggested and tried in order to  preserve our character and allow us to hold on to our Jewish identity. Some have suggested remaining insular and private while others have suggested the get real approach. to just enjoy life and do a bit here and there for our identity and just give up on it. Others have toyed with all other kinds of approaches over the years, which have either worked or not worked to one degree or another.

An Age Old Question

Over 3500 years ago one of the very first Jews struggled with the very same question. Jacob our forefather knew that his children, grandchildren and descendants were destined to be exiled and live a difficult life in Egypt. Egypt was a country that was an anathema to the spiritual values that he was conveying and teaching to the very first generations of Jews. Not only that,  he knew that the Jews wouldn’t just be partying on the beaches of the Red Sea or visiting the Pyramids, instead the Jews would be going through one of the worst forms of persecution and slavery that had ever existed. These were challenges that would make it a daunting and formidable challenge to retain even a remote sense of their true identity and purpose in this world.

Jacob was afraid, he lost sleep over this. He was fearful as to what will be, and will his descendants and the endeavor called the Jewish people; have the strength to survive the first major challenge that would come there way, as well as the challenges that were to follow over the course of history.  

Yet all of his fears and emotions changed one day due to a dream dreamt by his son Joseph. This would be a dream that would ultimately prove to be a game changer for the Jewish people as it helped shape the direction and course of where the Jewish people were headed then and for generations to come.

Two Dreams that Changed History

Yosef dreams two dreams with similar implications. His first dream is a scene in which eleven sheaves of grain bow down to his sheaf of grain which is standing upright. His second dream was a vision in which he sees eleven stars and the sun and the moon bowing down to him. Two seemingly strange dreams, which in fact contained the story of the destiny of the Jewish people and his eleven brothers.

Yosef tells the dreams to his brothers, who become angry and jealous of him at the implications of his dreams and the fact that he was suggesting that one day they will be bowing down to him. Yet the verse states something very interesting regarding his father’s reaction. The verse says that his father rebuked Yosef for telling these dreams to his brother and suggesting such matters, yet then the verse says that Jacob “guarded the matter”, meaning his father was waiting and hoping for the dream to be fulfilled.

Jacob’s reaction seems strange! On the one hand he is rebuking Yosef, yet on the other hand Jacob himself is hoping and waiting for this very dream to fulfill itself? In addition, why would a father wish to see all of his children bowing down and conceding to one of his other children?

How to retain our Identity

The Rebbe once explained this idea by explaining the difference between Joseph and the rest of his brothers. When we examine the text, we can see that Joseph’s brothers were profoundly spiritual people who had a deep and meaningful relationship with G-d while living their lives accordingly. At the same time, they manner through which they were able to maintain their strong sense of spiritual identity, was through inoculation and living in a manner that protected them and didn’t bring them into majorly challenging situations. They worked as shepherds out in the fields which allowed them to remain spiritual and not have to deal with challenges that would come with other kinds of trades. Yes they were righteous, but they were used to being righteous in an easy and almost sterile and insular spiritual environment.

Joseph on the other hand was someone who was very different and in a sense he was almost an exact opposite to them in how he lived his spiritual life. Yosef was someone who engaged the world around him, so much so that eventually he ends up becoming the second in command of Egypt, running its affairs in almost every important area of trade, taxes, governance and more. Yet within all of this, Yosef stands out as someone who not only is not weakened spiritually or has a weakened identity as a result of his interactions with the world. In fact the very opposite is true, Yosef retains and constantly develops his identity and character and proudly uses it throughout his experiences to grow, engage and impact the world in a positive and constructive manner. Yosef stands out as the ultimate pillar of strength, as someone who retains his identity, engages the world, and masters the best possible balance of using his spiritual side to strengthen himself and the world around him.

Throughout Jacob’s life, Jacob was afraid for his children. He was afraid for their ability to withstand the terrible challenges that they were soon to experience in Egypt. He feared for their ability to remain righteous and retain their unique identity. But then, when he heard about Joseph’s dream and realized that one day the other tribes would bow and give recognition to Joseph’s spiritual path, when he realized that one day they would seek to learn from Joseph’s unique strength, then Jacob was comforted and inspired with confidence for his children’s ability to navigate the challenges that lay ahead of them. Thus, while externally Jacob silences Joseph, deep down he sighs with relief and longs for the day when he sees this process happen.

The 21st century is really no different and today too Judaism doesn’t demand insularity and withdrawal from the world around us. In fact, Judaism encourages engagement and active participation in the world around us, the only condition is that we need to seek to be like Joseph, who never fudged or fumbled on his identity, and always used his deepest resources of his soul and his beliefs live in the right manner and to impact the world around him.

No one said it’s easy, but it’s definitely possible. There are things that help and empower this process, but perhaps that is for another article.

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