Expand the soul to cultivate the Divine within us

Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
Isaiah 54:11-55:5

At a training program I recently attended for spiritual directors at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, lecturer Don Bisson gave us a simple yet powerful exercise. He read the following set of adjectives and invited us to notice how we felt when we brought them to mind: judgmental, fearful, dominating, controlled, restrictive, anxious, defensive, separated. These were familiar feelings. It took just seconds before I could feel my heart and body constrict.

Then he invited us to consciously let those go (what a pleasure!), and take in the following series of descriptions: compassionate, loving, wise, receptive, inspired, peaceful, open, connected. I watched my body respond very quickly to these as well. I felt a great sense of calm and expansiveness.

Our teacher named the first list as a description of the superego, that harsh, critical voice that — for better and for worse — lives inside all of us. He named the second description “the transpersonal self.” He described the first as primarily a response to early childhood experience, and the second a manifestation of the Divine within us. The purpose of spiritual life, he asserted, is to cultivate the Divine self, the part of us most true and authentic, most connected to others and to God.

Of course, real human beings do not have neat internal compartments. We each have within us a complex mixture of contradictory traits, which shift over time and from moment to moment. However, I agree that the essence of spiritual life is to live less and less in the small story of one’s own moment-by-moment needs and personal dramas, and more and more in the larger experience of self — in which we reach beyond our own small life-story and know ourselves to be creations of God, connected to all beings, endowed with purpose and potential to serve.

How does all of this relate to our parashah? An apparently innocuous phrase in this week’s parashah brings us an extraordinary insight about cultivating the potential for holiness that lies within us, until this potential can expand and fill our lives.

Parashat Re’eh, while continuing to regard Jerusalem as the central place for sacrificial worship, recognizes the need for families who will live far from Jerusalem to slaughter animals for food. The text puts it this way: “When God enlarges your territory, as God has promised you, and you say, ‘I shall eat some meat,’ for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish. If the place where God has chosen to establish God’s name is too far from you, you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that God gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements. …” (Deut. 12:20-21)

For the Sefat Emet, the phrase “When God enlarges your territory” is not an external, geographical description, but an internal map of the soul. He describes it this way: “… one who gives to God a gift from the heart is broadened by this very act. … When a person overcomes his own willfulness and sets it aside for the sake of God’s will, this in itself opens up the inward. … This is the meaning of ‘broadens him.'” (“The Language of Truth,” edited by Arthur Green, p. 305)

Our soul is enlarged, the rebbe teaches, when we “give a gift to God”: when we observe a mitzvah, do an act of kindness, attend to God’s presence in our lives. This can and does happen in the midst of ordinary life. For example, when we desire meat (interestingly, the Torah describes this appetite as a desire of the soul), we may indulge our craving as long as we do not become distracted from our soul’s deepest longings, as long as satisfying momentary hungers does not come to define us, obscuring who we really are.

That which is most true and holy within us (what the Sefat Emet calls “the point”) “is hidden, and we have to broaden it. … The more we expand our souls, the more God is revealed to us in every place. This is the meaning of ‘when the Lord your God widens your border’ — the point spreads forth and ‘broadens’ or expands throughout the human soul.” (“Language of Truth,” p. 306)

May we take time this week to attend to our internal borders, to see whether we are doing all we can to cultivate the divine essence within us.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservative rabbi, is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.