Reminiscing about a recent trip to Israel I had a spiritual epiphany. It wasn’t at the Western Wall, or the graves of the Patriarchs. It wasn’t on the top of a pristine mountain or beside a rushing stream. It was thinking about a rainy day and a failed tour of a new archeological site that provided me with a new understanding of spirituality.
We were scheduled to tour Khirbet Khayifa and a bus of adults (we were amongst the youngest) set off from Jerusalem amidst threatening clouds to see the new dig site that was creating discussion about civilization during the King David’s time in the 10th century BCE. Our tour guide promised that the rain was not scheduled to begin until afternoon in the area near Beit Shemesh that was to be our destination. Nature had other plans, and as we turned off the highway onto the dirt road to the hill that houses the dig, it started to drizzle. It was only a few yards before the bus driver said “I can’t go further. A few more drops of rain, and I’ll be stuck”. The tour guide was adamant and encouraged the driver to keep going. After some harrowing tries, forward, reverse, forward, reverse, the bus rocking and sliding in the mudded ruts, the tour guide suggested we walk the remaining half mile. When the rain began in earnest, all of us cold, soaked through and covered in mud, ended the tour early. Returning to the bus we found it gone, it needed to be pulled from the mud by a tractor, and another one was sent in its place to get us safely home.
Weeks later, during Shabbat prayers, I found myself remembering the heated exchange between the “let’s move forward” tour guide and the “I can’t go further” bus driver, and thought of how we strive for spirituality for ourselves and children. How often do we ignore or push past the voices of children who say “I can’t move forward right now”, or “this doesn’t feel safe for me” or “I’m not ready to go there yet”. We want to help children reach the spiritual summit, so we think we should push them forward. But sometimes that pushing puts them at risk, turns them away, makes them uncomfortable.
What could have helped our bus make it up the muddy hill? A paved road would have made it totally do-able. At times, we try to pave the spiritual road for ourselves and our children, hoping for smooth sailing or short-cuts to the summit. This so often backfires, since spirituality is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. The other solution to slippery roads is good traction, which comes from tires with really deep and defined treads. Tire treads are created by voids in the rubber, hollowed out sections of the rubber. It is what is missing, what is not there, that gives the tire its grip and helps it move ahead on rough terrain.
In the Torah reading for this week, Moses brings the stone tablets with the ten commandments down from the mountain where he has been in communication with God. The Torah says the commandments were written with the finger of God, and the sages teach that the writing was engraved through and through – the words were, in essence, the void in the stones. The word and law of God were in the empty spaces.
This was my epiphany. To reach the pinnacle of one’s spirituality, we need to focus on what is not there, what is unseen. We need to make empty spaces in our and our children’s lives – spaces where we have time to think and to be mindful. In our world with multi-tasking and intense time demands, we need to carve out room for the holy. We will not reach spiritual heights focusing on the cell phone, the newspaper, the daily tasks that are evident before us. And we won’t reach our spiritual peaks because someone else told us to move forward. We will grow spiritually when we open ourselves to the unseen hand of God in our world, and when we give ourselves the time to empty our minds of the mundane and allow the holy letters of God’s commandments to be engraved on our souls.