I remember the late night talks like they were yesterday. They were around burning candles, campfires and long hikes in the woods. It felt like everything I expected college to be about. Of course, there was so much social fun, but the conversations about the ethereal, abstract and existential constituted the magic of being away from home and growing up.
My friends and I would inquire from one another, not with anxiety, but with curious wonder. We talked about our ultimate goals in life. As people who had food on our tables and roofs over our heads, these were relatively privileged inquiries, but they were authentic nevertheless.
I never would have said that I wanted to be a rabbi at that point on my journey, but yet, I declared with spiritual confidence: “I want to live life with my head in the clouds and my feet planted firmly on the ground.”
“What that does that mean?” my friends would push.
I was practical enough to know that I couldn’t live off of spirituality alone. I wanted to make a living. As hip as it felt to be all philosophical, I knew that philosophizing alone was not going to get me on the subway.
And yet, I knew that the concrete world was also not enough. I understood that for me to be fulfilled, I needed more than a good paycheck. I needed connection to the cosmic nature of the universe. And so, the balance of head in the clouds… the spiritual; and feet on the ground… the practical, felt wise and lent me clarity as a young man.
Paradoxically, for some reason, those two aspects of our world seem needlessly to compete: our heads and our hearts; our intellect with our souls. I steadfastly believe in both… and yet, they compete.
I am guessing most of us do the practical decently. Or, at least we understand our practical obligations clearly. But, what about the understanding of our spiritual life; about our existential state? How open are we to considering that part of our essence and purpose?
I don’t ask because I judge one way or the other. We all need whatever it is that we need. But, I just wonder how many of us who do want the “clouds” part of life, allow ourselves to acceptingly have it.
I ask because I do spirituality for a living. I came to the rabbinate for so many reasons, but for sure, in large part, I came to this life because I believe in the language of calling, eternality and an inner-life.
And yet I am still embarrassed to admit certain aspects of my spiritual life out loud. I have no issue describing the logistics of my life. But, even, I, who does the transcendent for a living, shy away from talking aloud about the contours of my soul. Perhaps, it is the microchip nature of our world that keeps me quieter on the matters of the spirit. Maybe, I fear people thinking I am a bit crazy for thinking away from the tangible. Either way, I and perhaps, we, struggle in this manner.
Judgment is an inhibitor of most everything. It is generally an emotion that we blame on others, but it is often just ourselves trying to convince us that we can’t… But, of course, we can. We can achieve and we can imagine. Imagination is an opening to inner-growth. What we imagine doesn’t have to necessarily be provable and empirical, but it can open the possibilities of new horizons of thought and hope and renewal.
Too often we disallow ourselves from wonder and possibility. We narrow what is possible by virtue of what we see in front of us. It is not my job to prove that there is more than what we see with our own eyes, but I do push myself and others (with love) to allow ourselves to at least follow what we believe might be possible from our hearts and spirits.
I believe there is a part of we, which is eternal; a part of us that has even lived before this lifetime. That part of us connects naturally to other cosmic energies in the world. When we allow that part of us to be free, we connect and grow and evolve in ways that engage all parts of our being. We allow ourselves to exercise our insides just like we do our muscles in the gym.
Perhaps what we sense in our guts is true; and maybe it is just dreamy fantasy. But if we sense and feel it, we should at least allow ourselves as much bandwidth for those feelings as we do those that impel us to manage our logistics. What literally exists in the cosmic “out there” is not nearly as important as the freedom we allow ourselves to experience our instincts and inclinations towards both the clouds and the ground.
I hope for you and for me that those conversations that seemed so vital and life changing in our college years, manifest in a sweet reality as we grow through all of the years of our lives.
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.