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Being Inspired by Judaism

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

The search for the inner substance and connection in Jewish life and practice.

Dear Rebbetzin Feige,
I have a great difficulty with my spirituality. I am an observant young woman who has never really wavered from my beliefs. But now I am struggling to feel anything when I practice mitzvoth (commandments). I don't find that I'm getting satisfaction, joy, or positive emotion. Rationally I know that I am leading a meaningful life, but I feel as though it is empty. I have tried learning about the mitzvot, putting in extra thought and intention, and talking with a rabbi, but none of it really seemed to help. Any input you could offer would be greatly desired.

Dear Reader,

The growth pattern of an individual is never a straight line upwards. Movement in the spiritual realm is more like making our way up a mountain. Inevitably, there are times when we lose our footing and slip back. The challenge is not to lose heart but to strengthen ourselves, to pull ourselves together and re-engage the climb.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that God's relationship and interaction with us can be compared to parents' relationship with their children. Imagine parents relishing the milestone of their toddler's first attempt at walking. Typically, parents will stand reassuringly at a short distance and hold out their hands, poised to catch the child. But as soon as the child comes close, they retreat a few steps so that the toddler will take another step and continue the process of learning how to walk.

At times, the Almighty does the same with us, appearing to retreat and take a step backwards, moving away 

Spiritual journeys, as a rule, do not provide immediate gratification. There are usually some dark tunnels along the way.

from us and making His presence elusive and more difficult to access so that His children might draw on their untapped resources to forge ahead and expand their growth horizons.

So one way to look at your present inability to feel is that God is trying to teach you to "walk."

Another point to consider is that the more precious something is, the greater the price. Spiritual journeys, as a rule, do not provide immediate gratification. There are usually some dark tunnels along the way. Only the investment of patience and perseverance will ultimately yield the rewards of acquisition and its concomitant joy.


In every person's life there are moments when an individual becomes very vulnerable. Quite often this is due to an emotional trauma or some major disappointment. It is at this point that one is at great risk of falling precipitously from "the top of the mountain to the bottom of the pit."

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (of blessed memory), a noted thinker and past dean of Mirer Yeshiva, draws on the events in the life of Saul, the first king of Israel, to illustrate this phenomenon. Saul was an individual, humble to a fault, who resisted honor and eschewed positions of leadership. Ultimately, he was obliged to assume the mantle of leadership, but unfortunately, due to his defaulting on a mandate from God, the prophet, Samuel, informed him that his kingship was terminated.

The consummately humble Saul responded to the situation in a most uncharacteristic manner. He pleaded with Samuel saying, "Hold onto me and give me honor in the presence of the nation."

King Saul, who had shunned honor all his life, suddenly had a need for it. Rabbi Shmuelevitz poignantly explains that Saul's uncharacteristic request sprang from his acute sense of vulnerability and the concomitant need for compensation. What was required at this juncture was to break the fall in order to minimize the ground lost and the damage done. The "hold onto me" approach had to be invoked. In moments of vulnerability an individual needs someone to hold, who will give him support, honor, validation, affirmation, and counsel. Such is the existential human condition.

Inevitably, life serves up challenges of all kinds. Feelings of rejection and disappointment, whether they appear to emanate from our relationship with the Almighty or with significant others in our life, render us vulnerable to the slippery slope. Our only hope is to identify an individual whom we can trust to help us regain our footing. In the absence of such a person a sensitive, spiritual and highly recommended therapist might also work.

Rabbi Dovid of Tolna once remarked that the world is divided into two groups. One half is that of believers; the other of nonbelievers. "This dichotomy," he explained, "accurately describes the conflict within the psyche of each person." A part of us believes wholeheartedly in God and His providence; the other part of us is in constant conflict, struggling with metaphysical issues of faith and practice.

It is important for my dear reader to know that she is not alone, that the struggle is not to herself, and the fact that she has reached out to seek guidance is much to her credit.


Though I don't know the reader personally, her question resonates with much of what I see as the ubiquitous challenge of our time. While Torah and commandments are observed and "the form" of traditional of life is engaged, for some people, the inner substance - the "soul" - seems to be elusive. It is akin to a body functioning successfully on a physical level but the inner light of the spirit has not been activated.

This perhaps helps to explain the search for soul within the secular world and the appeal of "New Age Spirituality" and "Kabbalah." Misguided and limited as they might be, their burgeoning presence is indicative of a hunger, a search for the inner meaning of life and existence. One must be cautious, however, about where one seeks answers to these most important questions.

We must constantly be reminded that we are positioned for greatness and that our potential is infinite

As Jews, we are aware that ideally we should "serve the Almighty with joy" (Psalms 100:2). This is generated by the perspective that being created in the image of God means, in no uncertain terms, that the Almighty has invested part and parcel of Himself in our very beings and that each of us contains a singular magnificence. The description of the creation of man in Genesis asserts, "And He blew into man a living soul." Just as one who blows exhales part of himself, so too did God imbue us with exalted spiritual potential in "blowing a living soul."

Given this Divine investiture, we must constantly be reminded that we are positioned for greatness and that our potential is infinite. We rejoice in this knowledge and it should motivate us to become the best we can be. Assuredly, there is much work to be done, but it is in the supportive context of affirmation.


To balance out the compelling imperative for joy in life and in our service to the Almighty, there is yet another core and salient insight that needs to be recognized. The Torah describes the poignant episode of the matriarch Rachel naming her newborn son moments before she dies in childbirth. She names him "Ben-Oni"- the son of my pain. (Genesis 35:18) Jacob, her husband, modifies the name to Benyamin. A contemporary thinker states the following: "Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsh, in commenting on Rachel's use of the word oni ("my sorrow") here, notes that it has to do with a pervasive sense of loss. He relates oni to a word which appears in Numbers 11:1 as a description of the Israelites unhappiness in their desert wanderings: "mitonenim." This expression is usually translated "murmuring," but Hirsh renders it "as if in mourning over themselves."

The Israelites were disturbed, worried, grieved. This sorrow was a feeling that came over them despite being completely taken care of, surrounded in their travels by clouds of Divine protection. The commentaries make clear that this murmuring or mourning was different from mere complaint. It was a specific kind of disturbance, an existential sorrow over the suffering present in human experience, a suffering caused by a spiritual lack. Despite the care God was giving and the blessings heaped on the nation, they remained unconnected to their souls.

This disconnection happens to everyone some of the time, and to some people most of the time. Rachel seems to have been a person with an intense soul-hunger, yet connected to the realities of earthly life that she always felt mankind's lack of connection to something beyond the mundane. She could not be satisfied unless earth and heaven were truly connected.

Rachel becomes, for us, the mother of sorrows because she knew the passionate struggle for life, for completion, and the sense of loss or failure we feel when what we sought, what seemed just within our reach, is suddenly taken away. How apt that she should be the one whose prayers reach the heaven for our redemption. Rachel understood that no earthly experience could be truly complete. Only at the end of the journey of the whole people through all time could one hope for completion.


With the backdrop of these possible components of spiritual detachment, the following will hopefully help negotiate a more spiritually engaged posture.

Your question implies the need for an emotionally richer environment. As with everything else, it has to be a good fit. It has to resonate with you. There is never "one size fits all" in spiritual growth. You mentioned that you have spoken to a rabbi. Perhaps a woman mentor might be a person who would more readily understand the undercurrents of your situation.

At times, it might be appropriate to evaluate the community one lives in. Is it the best context for your spiritual well-being? What are the values that drive those around you? What turns them on? The energy of our environment impacts tremendously on the affect of our lives - for better or for worse.

Our Sages teach that to make the learning of Torah most potent, it must perforce be accompanied by the 'fire,' the experiential component, its coming alive in every precinct of life.

Seeing and tasting the genuine experience would be greatly beneficial to the reader's spiritual growth.

I would suggest that the reader seek out someone she identifies as 'inspired,' who really and truly exemplifies the spirit of Torah in every aspect of their life, and to whatever extent possible, that she place herself in that context - for Shabbos, a holiday, etc. Seeing and tasting the genuine experience would be greatly beneficial to the reader's spiritual growth.

I have found learning weekend retreats to be powerful modalities for growth. Partaking in such an event, in a serene, quiet and secluded setting provides an oasis in our hectic supercharged schedules that can be conducive to constructive inquiry, reflection and soul searching. In addition, the interaction, the give and take with others who like yourself are spiritually motivated can create a strong and enriching bond.

Reaching out to others in acts of kindness, i.e. visiting hospitals, old-age homes, cooking a meal for the needy, and efforts to alleviate the pain of others can be an antidote for spiritual malaise. It provides for shifting the focus from ourselves to awareness that there is a world beyond the self that desperately awaits our contribution. Forward movement and positive behavior always create momentum in the right direction.

The women of my community, in pursuit of maintaining their spiritual well-being, have created partners in learning. They have explored many significant works. Not only is the learning edifying, but perhaps more significantly, they draw on and share the rich and meaningful insights born of their own personal and individual life experiences.

Another wonderful tool for being 'inspired' is to inspire others. The Mishna attests to the fact that the greatest beneficiary in a teaching relationship is the teacher. "Much have I learned from my teachers, even more from my colleagues, but most of all from my students." Students challenge us and force us to explore deep places within ourselves we did not know existed. Finding an appropriate teaching opportunity may well provide for a source of inspiration.

We, as Jews, begin our day with the recitation of the short "Modeh Ani" prayer. In these two short verses we express 'modeh' (thanks) to God for returning our soul to us, so that we may enjoy the gift of another day. The word 'modeh' shares a root with the word 'hodaah', meaning admission and submission. In effect, we acknowledge, we submit that everything in life, all of our blessings, are a courtesy, a bestowal from the Master of the universe. King David in Psalms exclaims, "Every soul will praise God." How? The word 'neshama,' soul, is the very derivation for the word, 'neshimah,' breath. Every breath we take should remind us and give rise to songs and praise to the Almighty, who invested our life-sustaining soul within us. Listen to your breath, observe the beauty of the exquisite functioning of the body, of the natural order of the world around you-the skies, the stars, the sun, the moon, the seasons etc. "How magnificent are the works of the Almighty!" Living mindfully with awareness and consciousness can unquestionably move us in a spiritual direction.

Finally, pray. Before engaging in whatever mitzvah or endeavor that has not been giving you 'satisfaction, joy or positive emotion,' recite your own formulation of a short entreaty to the Almighty that He help you achieve fulfillment and connection through the deed that you are about to perform.

In conclusion, take heart from the profound insight of our Sages which encourages us to see the dark night of the soul as a springboard for spiritual growth. They said, "Had I not fallen, I would not have arisen; and had I not sat in darkness, I would not be the beneficiary of light" (Midrash Tehillim 22). Your honest quest and serious endeavors in the pursuit of clarity will, with God's help, propel you to higher ground.

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