The seder: A pathway to spiritual well-being



ENCINO, Calif. (JTA) — I am addicted to the news. Something enormously dramatic and extraordinary seems to be happening all the time, whether it’s war, terrorism, natural disasters, corruption, environmental destruction or economic upheaval.

With this constant tumult, one may wonder if the state of the world is growing more dismal. More likely it was always like this, but without the Internet and television it was lesser known. People seem to be constantly seeking answers on how to cope, gain more control of their lives and remain spiritually whole.

“Positive thinking” is one of the more en vogue means to spiritual healing and an unquestionable hot seller. It’s a terrific practice and one that Judaism supports through the prayer book’s daily blessings and affirmations. The power of positive thinking is also found in Chasidic circles: As the Yiddish expression goes, "Tracht gutt, vet zein gutt" or “Think good, and it will be good.”

But would Judaism support the notion that how one thinks is, as the best-seller "The Secret" puts it, “The law that determines the complete order in the Universe, every moment of your life, and every single thing you experience in your life … You are the one who calls the law of attraction into action, and you do it through your thoughts.”

The thinking seems to be that we become rich or poor, suffer or are contented because of how we think. Even the High Holidays prayer book doesn’t go quite that far when it notably declares that prayer, repentance and righteous acts are able only to “lessen the severity of evil” in our lives — not entirely “determine the complete order of the universe.”

Frankly, it seems terribly stressful to accept the idea that how we think is the total determinant in our lives. What if I just cannot think positively because terrible things are happening? And the added realization that my subsequent unhopeful thinking is only dragging me down further, bringing even more pain and misfortune to my life, is a bitter message to embrace. This is especially true when one loses his or her job in a frightful economic climate, suffers a family tragedy, or is simply born into the desperate conditions of impoverishment or ethnic genocide.

Judaism offers another alternative, as it does not assume that we can be or will be intellectually or emotionally impeccable. The Torah unapologetically recounts numerous examples of discontent, desire, lust and deceitfulness from Jacob to King David. And rabbinic literature frequently portrays the Rabbis with their human foibles rather than as blissful saints. In this spirit, the Talmud tells of God denying the heavenly angels’ request to receive the Torah for themselves rather than for us:

"God said to them [the angels]: ‘Did you go down to Egypt; were you enslaved to Pharaoh: why then should the Torah be yours? … Do you dwell among people that engage in idol worship; … Do you perform work, that you need to rest [on the Sabbath]; … Is there any business dealings among you; … Is there jealousy among you [that you need to resist murder and adultery]; is the Evil Tempter among you!’ Straightway they conceded to the Holy One, blessed be He" (Shabbat 88b).

The Torah serves as a guide to life, given to people, not angels, not merely because of what we do but also because of what we are. Human beings, unlike angels, feel and think — and by virtue of our earthly existence, we feel and think imperfectly.

So if Judaism does not prescribe positive thinking as the chief and sole method for spiritual health, what does it advise?

Consider the Passover seder, today’s most popular and arguably most profound Jewish observance. The seder is essentially comprised of four elements, each representing Judaism’s answer to how to live a healthy spiritual life.

1. Family. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna posited, “Family life is the bedrock on which Jewish society stands.” The Passover seder is a family event. It is constructed so that parents and children each have a part. Creating a time, a place and a structure for family events is vital to well-being.

2. Learning. Because we are innately imperfect, Judaism advises lifelong learning and truth seeking, not just for the young or uninitiated, but for the old and wise, too. The seder is a ceremony of study, and the learning and intellectual growth generate a sense of joy and inspiration.

3. Ritual. Every culture has its own symbols that represent its deepest principles and values, even in secular American (e.g., flags, monuments). But identifying symbols alone is never enough. We must interact with our symbols and engage in symbolic behavior in order to remind us of those most important parts of our lives. Rituals bind us to others, to God and to our own sense of spirit.

4. Communal heritage. We are unified as a community by those who came before us. The lives we lead today are the reason our ancestors worked as they did. They endured suffering, fought injustices and built societies for us as much as for themselves. Acknowledging our historical and spiritual legacy develops our own sense of self-esteem and self-worth, as well as our hope for the future.

In times of doubt and even in times of grace, Judaism offers us multiple avenues to access self-healing. We cannot always think positively — who can in times of turmoil? But if we make time to act positively and participate in family, learning, ritual and matters of communal heritage such as the Passover seder, we will discover what transcends any obstacle we face.

(Paul Steinberg is a rabbi and educator at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., and the author of the Jewish Publication Society’s “Celebrating the Jewish Year” series.)


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