A String Around Your Finger

For all the spiritual riches of religious tradition, sometimes we forget our spiritual essence – the spark of divinity we associate with each soul, the inherent Oneness connecting all things, the heightened reality hiding in plain sight. Our penchant for spiritual amnesia is less a Jewish frailty than a human one: after all, to forget is human. Each world wisdom tradition, in its own way, calls us to “remember” (Hebrew: zachor; Arabic: zikr) – and then live in ways that help remind us.

The challenge is that forgetting is like a black hole, concealing itself in the cloak of its own darkness. As in astrophysics (a black hole’s gravity absorbs most visible proof of its existence), so too in spirituality. When we forget our spirituality, often we forget that we forget. In the small-minded but necessary routines of corporeal life, spirituality can fade from view, memory and lived experience. Sucked into this vortex of life’s routine, spiritual forgetfulness is indeed like a spiritual black hole.

In this light (pun intended), we forgetful folks face a spiritual koan: how to remember what we forget, when we forget that we don’t remember? We can keep lists, but we might forget to look at them. We can set alarms, but we might put them on snooze when they ring. We can tie strings around our fingers, but we might forget what they stand for. Solutions abound, but all are recursive: any response depending on one’s usual patterns of mind and heart will be like a black hole cloaked in itself.

So what to do? One answer from tradition concerns the tzitzit (fringes) that this week’s Torah portion (Shlach) directed our ancient forebears to wear on their clothes. Rabbinic liturgists appended these words to the end of the Shema (Num. 15:38-40):

“God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments for their generations, and give to the fringe on each corner a thread of blue. You will have the fringe, so you can look at it, and remember all of God’s commands and do them, so you won’t turn after [the misdirections of] your heart and after your eyes, and thereby go astray. [This way] you will remember….”

The conundrum, however, is much like our spiritual black hole. Even if one ties a blue thread on the corner of one’s garment – like a blue string around the finger – no mnemonic can be self-executing. If we don’t pay attention in the right way, then either we won’t see, or we won’t associate what we see with what seeing is supposed to help us remember. In short, seeing sometimes isn’t believing. So again, what to do?

Doing, it turns out, offers a way out of our “spiritual amnesia” dilemma. Encoded in Torah is a toolkit of ways to shift habitual patterns of mind and heart that contribute to spiritual amnesia. One of these tools is doing. Torah asks us not only to have fringes but also to make fringes: Talmud clarifies that the mitzvah is to make fringes ourselves (B.T. Sukkah 9a). Engaging our other senses, creating something by our own hands, the physical acts of active doing help re-pattern us so that remembering becomes more likely. Neuropsychologists call this phenomenon neuroplasticity, the brain’s remarkable capacity to build new pathways of association, thought and memory based partly on what we do. Rabbis might call this phenomenon na’aseh v’nishma (“we will do and we will hear”), our spiritual forebears’ answer to receiving Torah at Sinai (Ex. 24:7). Spiritually speaking, doing leads to hearing and remembering.

Another tool to lift us out of spiritual amnesia is to do together. Torah asks us to make fringes l’dorotam (“for your generations”), a permanent duty applicable to everyone. Torah thereby depicts a continuity and collectivity in which we don’t live or act alone. Tradition won’t leave us hermetically sealed in spiritual amnesia, like a black hole nobody can see. We humans, each with a spark of divinity, are made to see and be seen – to help others see, and so others can help us see. Again in tradition’s wisdom, “A prisoner can’t release oneself from prison” (B.T. Berakhot 5b): joining with others can help free us from the warp of spiritual amnesia.

So consider this: what can you do – engage your senses, add associational layers of personal meaning – to remind yourself of your spiritual essence? How can you do together with others, to become more transparent to others – and to give others permission to help you see your blind spots? How can you live a hands-on spirituality that can be seen and thus remembered? If you’re a spiritual leader, how can you foster this kind of spiritually connective community for others?

Start by tying a blue string….

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