The spiritual connection


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson reflects on what inner connection really means to us individually and how to build a home for spirituality within oneself.

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I have a question for you: To what extent do you consider yourself a spiritual person? A lot? A bit? Not at all?

One of the major public research organizations in America, NORC (the National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago, recently asked this question in a major study sponsored by the Fetzer Institute.

They found something that kind of knocked my socks off: 86% of Americans said they identify as spiritual to at least some extent. I don’t know about you, but that’s a way higher number than I expected to hear. 

(Photo: Getty Images)

One of the really cool things about this study was that they spent less time trying to define what spirituality means and more finding out about what people associated with it — what spirituality meant to them.

They asked people to draw pictures of spirituality. They asked for words people associated with spirituality. And one thing that came through over and over was that, for most people, spirituality is, at root, about the experience of connection: to themselves, to other people, to the natural world, to a higher power.

There is something about spirituality that helps people move from being focused on “I” and “me” to being focused on “us” and “we.” That reality is reflected in the study’s finding that I’m most intrigued by: that people who identify as spiritual are far more likely to participate in civic life.

This tells me that people who feel more connected to things and people beyond themselves end up participating more in the life of the community.

With the Torah portion of Terumah, we arrive at a part of the Torah that can feel a little boring, a series of Torah portions that lasts for several weeks. It’s all about the building of the mishkan, the portable temple for God that the Israelites built in the wilderness.

In chapter after chapter, we learn, in rather painstaking detail, about its dimensions, all the objects inside of it, the materials used to make them, the clothing for the priests who would offer sacrifices inside it.

As a kid (and, I’ll be honest, even today as an adult), reading these Torah portions would sometimes bring to mind what the little boy says to his grandfather at the beginning of “The Princess Bride”: “Doesn’t sound too bad… I’ll try and stay awake.”

But what I’ve learned over the years is that these long sections of the Torah are actually a deep lesson in spirituality, connection, and community. Why? Because, as we learn at the beginning of Terumah, the Mishkan is meant to be built out of the contributions and work of people who, the Torah says, are moved in their hearts to contribute.

It’s not created through taxing or seizing property or enslaving people to build it: It’s a voluntary effort, undertaken by people who feel a sense of connection and inspiration — so much so that, as we’ll read in one of the Torah portions to come, Moses has to tell them to stop bringing so much stuff!

And the whole project is framed by one of the most beautiful and important lines in the Torah, when God tells Moses that the people should quote, “build me a home, so that I may dwell among them.”

The masters of the Hasidic tradition pick up on this language and point out that God doesn’t want to dwell in the building, but rather in them, the people — in their hearts, in our hearts.

Building the mishkan is the work of making a home for the Divine, the Creator, the life force of the universe — whatever you want to call it.

It isn’t just the work or the privilege of the generation of the Exodus from Egypt; it’s our work and privilege too. As the Fetzer Institute study reminds us, that home isn’t in some building, but in our own hearts and minds and spirits.

Whenever we cultivate that awareness of interconnection, my feeling is that we’re building — or maybe even revealing — a home for the Holy One.

My day job is serving as president and CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, one of the co-producers of this podcast. So people often ask me, “What exactly is spirituality?”

The answer I’ve found I like best is that spirituality is our capacity for feeling truly at home in the world. When we experience that sense of profound interconnectedness — with ourselves, with loved ones, with other humans, with the natural world, with a oneness that exists both within and beyond ourselves — that, to me, is us flexing our spirituality.

I would suggest, that’s also when we build the Mishkan, when we create a home for the Infinite Oneness of life and the universe.

Usually this is the part of the show where I offer a mindfulness practice for you to do. But the truth is that, this week, there’s not one single practice I feel like I want to teach — because every practice we explore together on this podcast is an exercise in this teaching.

So instead, I want to encourage you to choose one practice you want to deepen a bit this week: It could be meditation, it could be having an intention or focus phrase for the week, it could be a journaling practice.

You can listen to a previous episode and try one of the practices I’ve taught before. But most fundamentally, what I want to invite you to do — and it’s important that you’re invited, not required, otherwise it’s not really building the mishkan — is be sure to find at least one moment each day when you can slow down and bring your awareness to the reality that you are connected: to your body and mind, to the physical place where you are, to friends and loved ones in your life, to the natural world, to a presence greater than what appears on the surface.

Allow yourself to be aware of that, to hold it, to be held by it. When you’re doing that, you’re making a home for that larger presence — and, I think, you may find you’re spiritually at home too.

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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