When my college friends and I would sit around and talk about the meaning of life, I would inevitably say something along the lines of the following: “I will be happy if I can lead my life with my feet planted firmly on the ground, while my head is just as firmly planted in the clouds.”
What that younger version of myself hoped was that I would live my life, both committed to living practically, while always striving for cosmic depth. I knew, even as a young man, that living only in the life of the spiritual would not allow me to pay my rent, while only worrying about logistics wouldn’t allow me the ability to cultivate what I thought to be an imperative: cultivating an inner-life.
This past week something happened that allowed me the chance for a check-up on my younger aspirations. I was leading an Israel trip and the itinerary put us in the middle of the Israeli desert(Negev). When I lead trips to Israel, there are often many activities and experiences packed into each day. Given both the busy-ness of our trips (especially this one, attached to a greater-community mission) and the depth of complexity that exists as part and parcel of a daily Israeli life, I try to build in time, not just to see, but to process what we have seen. I figured what better place than the desert to delve into the experiential.
We began with a planned drum-circle. Everyone laughed, sang and even had to become a bit vulnerable by learning an unfamiliar instrument. We got to beat out our exhaustion, anxieties about life and whatever else, as we knocked on Middle-Eastern drums.
After we put our drums down, I told a story and integrated what we had seen over our first few days together. I asked the group to close their eyes and see within their minds; feel in their bodies, what they had experienced with our speakers, foods, political conflict, rituals, visits with Israelis and Palestinians, holy sites, etc. I asked them to start to process their thoughts, questions and feelings. I asked them to wonder about what they would take home with them in terms of how our experience might affect their sense of identity, spirituality, Judaism and attachment to their Homeland-how might our visit change the way they think about their lives.
When they opened their eyes, I could tell they weren’t all present and perhaps, I had more work to do to help them get to a riper place of process. I told them to take a moment to make sure they knew where they were. How often does a group from suburban, New Jersey get to sit in the middle of a vast desert after all? I pointed out the layers of topography; the sense of eternity that the desert presents.
And then, I decided to really go for it: I said, “Listen, the one thing about being here is that everything you have ever read in the Bible, in a staid religious school classroom, actually lives here. Here is where the Bible was acted out. Here, you don’t have to read it, but have the chance to see where it might have actually happened.” I am not a reader of the biblical narrative as an historical document, mind you, but the Truth lived according to any people’s narrative brings forth a certain measure of dramatic value and witness.
And, so I continued: “After all, it was only (I pointed south) about 100 miles or so in that direction where we believe that Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai.”
And here was the moment of my own personal test: As they looked with wide and wondering eyes, a bolt of lightning struck down from the sky, accompanied with one of the loudest and most frightening claps of thunder I have heard in my life.
We all jumped, almost out of our skin. My “feet on the ground” side told me to get everyone the heck out of there fast. Safety first, right? Yet, my “head in the clouds” side asked, “Did lightning just strike as I mentioned receiving Torah at Sinai?” How could it be?
Of course, we can’t quite worry about spirituality if we are not breathing, so I directed everyone back on the bus immediately. Caught in a bout of professional narcissism, as I was running back to the bus, I was angry at my practical side for missing the opportunity to process and deepen the experience with my people. I felt I was somehow missing the mark because this is the whole reason, spiritual leaders guide these trips… to give meaningful context; to help people dig deeper into themselves. And then I realized that it was only when I was stuck beating myself up about my supposed missed opportunity that my feet were too attached to the ground. I had sort of missed the ethereal side while I was caught up in myself.
A couple of moments later, I received a text from the Israeli community mission guide. He wrote, “I am not sure what you were doing out there in that circle, but all I can tell you is that it is not rainy season in the desert for another few weeks. None of us can ever remember a recorded time when it rained this early in the fall… and certainly no one can ever remember a time when lightning struck in mid-October. That must have been some session you were leading out there. What were you talking about anyway?”
Did lightning strike because I was invoking Moses at Sinai? I’m guessing not. But who knows. And perhaps, that is besides the point. Our practical side got us out of the way of lightning, while our mystical and spiritual side, I am guessing, will make it so our group will never forget what it felt like to experience that moment in the desert of Israel with our feet firmly on the ground, while our heads were just as firmly in the heavens.
Matthew D. Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He is the author of The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow? (Random House). A strong advocate of social justice, Matt Gewirtz is a founding executive committee member of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace, an interfaith organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims that is committed to ending gang violence in Newark. Matt Gewirtz strives to find joy and meaning in his daily life and is committed to helping do the same for others. His greatest joy comes from his wife, Lauren and their three beautiful children.