The other day, I was working on my computer when a Facebook live post of someone singing one of my favorite spiritual poems, the piyut “Ana Bekoach,” popped up.
I love this poem, so I stopped what I was doing to watch.
The music was lovely but the quality was less than perfect. About a minute in, a half-dressed child wandered in front of his father and lingered, giving us a view of his belly. The music continued and the dog came by. Then without warning, something happened to the camera, which prompted the singer to get up and check if he was still recording, which we reported back that he was. And so it continued.
Spirituality is a big word. So is meditation.
For me, they evoke visions of mountain tops or waves quietly lapping at the shore.
This was not that.
I first learned to meditate through a rabbinic program that had multiple retreats spread out over two years. The first two retreats had been almost entirely silent.
Other than Torah study and lectures, we did not even hear cars or maintenance workers. I grew to love this silence. Then on the third retreat when we were sitting in meditation, I heard a truck rumble along the main road of the center. Moments later lawnmowers began to buzz and people began to talk as they worked.
I beckoned to the teacher and asked her to please remove these intrusions on my silence. When she simply smiled and walked away, I was truly perplexed.
If you are lucky to be able to sit in peace on a mountain top or retreat in silence for day after day, then undoubtedly the quality of your meditation will be deep and you will have spiritual revelations.
But that is rarely the way life works.
In normal times, I would have rolled my eyes at the “Ana Bekoach” video. I would have wondered why the artist had not taken care to clear out the distractions, just as I was expecting my meditations teacher to do.
But this odd time has broadened my understanding. Instead of turning away from the video, I embraced its slightly chaotic nature. Like my meditation teacher, I now too smiled at the distractions.
Spirituality may come at those pure moments of peaceful reflection and meditation, but if those are the mandatory prerequisites, that form of connection may elude us more often than not. Yes, it is important to set aside time for clear and uninterrupted thought and connection, but there is also great possibility for spirituality in the mess of daily life with all its imperfections.
Years ago, I had the privilege of sitting in a seminar with a well-known Israeli rabbi. In the middle of the lecture the phone rang and he answered it. He carried on a brief conversation with his wife about diapers for his granddaughter then reminded her that he was teaching and returned to teaching. I remember being offended by the interruption. It seemed disrespectful, at least by my American standards, to take a call, especially for something so trivial, in the middle of a class.
As we have sheltered in place I have watched many accomplished people navigate, with varying degrees of grace, the myriad interruptions that come from working and living together in our homes. Through this, I have come to see that seminar with the well-known Israeli rabbi in a new light, one that had been there all along but would take a global pandemic for me to see.
Far from being disrespectful to us, taking this call was instructive. Far too often the world of ideas and spirituality are presented or perceived as separate from the complications of daily life, from the mundane and the banal. But they are all part of the same whole.
From time to time, we may try and “get away from it all” and find the peace I found at the first two retreats I attended. But in taking the phone call about the diapers in the middle of a class on the book of Genesis, the rabbi was reminding us that in Judaism the spirit does not live apart from the daily life but within it. In real life, in the life expected for us by Jewish tradition, the goal is not perfect peace, but a spirituality that lives in the realities of our messy, complicated lives.