OpinionJewish & Israeli Holidays

On sabbaticals and spirituality

Whether we are aware of it or not, every human being has a deep-seated need for truth and authenticity in their lives.

A bonfire celebrating the holiday of Lag B'Omer, which commemorates Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Credit: Lerner Vadim/Shutterstock
A bonfire celebrating the holiday of Lag B'Omer, which commemorates Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Credit: Lerner Vadim/Shutterstock
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

Does our generation still search for truth? Are there any genuine idealistic seekers today, or was that mostly in the 1960s? There certainly aren’t so many mass movements like then, but undoubtedly, there are those in every generation who are discerning and thoughtful, and look beyond the superficial for higher truths, reasons for their existence and the deeper meaning of life.

This week’s Torah portion is called Behar (“on the mountain”), and one of its main themes is shmita, the sabbatical year. The Torah commands Jewish farmers in the Land of Israel to give the land a rest every seven years. Six years we were to work the land, and in the seventh year, the land would lie fallow. During that sabbatical year, the land was renourished and replenished so it could then regenerate in the years after. Even today, some brave, believing farmers in Israel still observe this tradition. It isn’t easy. Many come to their assistance during the sabbatical year to help them through, but they do it faithfully.

And what were the people to do with all their free time during the seventh year? Less work meant more time for higher pursuits. Less involvement with earthiness allowed them to embrace heavenliness. If we are less busy with the material world, we can indulge in the spiritual.

Like Shabbat, a day of rest, the sabbatical is a year of rest. On Shabbat, we use the extra time not only to rest but also for spiritual pursuits: Torah, prayer, studying with our children, studying by ourselves. So, too, in the sabbatical year, we rest from material involvements to devote much more time to loftier, spiritual activities.

The name Behar, referring to Mount Sinai, also conveys a sense of raising ourselves higher. A mountain is an elevated part of the ground, high above the plains and valleys. It represents lifting ourselves above the mundane and the material to seek higher truths.

This Sunday is Lag B’Omer, a minor festival that has always enjoyed major celebrations. Sadly, thanks to Hezbollah’s regular rocket attacks on northern Israel, the annual celebrations at Mount Meron—the sacred burial site of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (“Rashbi”)—have, understandably, been prohibited. I was there once in my life some years ago. What an experience it was! Tragically, a few years ago, dozens of people lost their lives there in a terrible accident.

The legendary Rabbi Shimon was a brilliant Talmudic scholar and the “Father of the Kabbalah.” Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism. Does it contain the secrets of the cosmos? Some people think it’s Jewish black magic.

Traditionally, the study of Kabbalah was restricted to those over 40 who had mastered the Talmud and the basics of Torah. Kabbalah means “that which has been received” and refers to teachings transmitted faithfully from teacher to disciple for generations. Yes, it does contain “secrets” of the Torah. Indeed, it is known as sod, the esoteric and hidden part. But there are no dark secrets; on the contrary, there are secrets of light and life. It is a study of metaphysics. “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” Heaven and earth are part of one and the same world. They are two sides of the same coin. Every physical object, event or phenomenon has a spiritual, inner dimension.

Is Kabbalah dangerous? Well, if we put our noses where we shouldn’t, then it may be. Even great people have been hurt by too much exposure to the supernal light. There is the famous story of the four great sages who entered the “garden,” a euphemism for piercing the gates of heaven and going on a spiritual journey to the worlds beyond. One lost his life, another lost his mind, and the third lost his faith. Only Rabbi Akiva survived intact. Rabbi Shimon was one of the foremost disciples of Rabbi Akiva.

Kabbalah must not be a form of spiritual escapism. It must give us a deeper understanding of people and the planet, and enlighten us so we can add light to the material world. It’s part of our mission on earth.

Without insight or appreciation of what lies beyond the physical, life can become empty and meaningless, God forbid. It’s the spirit that enlivens the body. Armed with a deeper appreciation of the cosmic significance of life and our every deed, we can live a more fulfilled life, packing our days with meaning and depth.

How many thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of young Jews have been lost to the fold because they were seeking more spirituality, and couldn’t or didn’t find it in the Judaism they were exposed to in their youth? This is a devastating loss to our people. It is especially tragic because the spirituality was always there, though they never knew about it and no one ever showed them. Their bar mitzvahs were nothing more than parroting a parshah or a Haftorah, often clueless to its meaning or significance. It was a one-time performance, and then it was over. They usually never came back. Sadly, when they are mature enough to appreciate spirituality and want it in their lives, they never even consider looking to Judaism or everything it has to offer.

Whether aware of it or not, every human has a deep-seated need for truth and authenticity. There must be more to life than “burgers and fries” or a good round of golf. Money and materialism can only go so far. Yes, they make life easier, but not more meaningful. They don’t tell us how to live life or why we are here in the first place.

Just as the Jewish farmers of old sanctified the seventh year and thus elevated the other six years, we can rise above the earthiness of life and embrace our innate God-given spirituality. And, we, too, can live a higher life.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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