Spiritual Hangover: Coming Down From the Mountain

Here’s a one-question pop quiz, and everyone gets an “A.” Now that this year’s Jewish High Holy Days are done, which of the following four statements most accurately describes how you feel?

   a. Huh? What’d I miss?
   b. Thank goodness! I’m so done.
   c. Wow! I feel refreshed and renewed.
   d. What a letdown! Now what?

Whichever your answer – or even if you prefer all of the above – you’re right, and Jewish spiritual wisdom is on your side.

Jewish mystics call it ratzo va-shov (Ezekiel 1:14) – literally “running and returning” or, in modern vernacular, “to and fro” or “ebb and flow.” By its nature, spiritual life (really, all life) has peak experiences and then flatter terrain – times of exertion and times of relative ease, times we call holidays and times that seem more routine.

This “to and fro” (or “ebb and flow”) is baked into human life and Jewish life. If every moment metaphorically were atop Sinai’s heights, there’d be no regular life to live — no chances to make meaning of the seemingly routine, no capacity to find and refine our own power and creativity. Perhaps ironically, special would become routine and we might bore of it.

On the other hand, if every moment were flat without elevated times and experiences, there’d be no breaking the monotony, no infusion of inspiration, no heightened awareness to attract and refine our focus.

Too much and we risk burning out; too little and we risk fizzling out. Just as tides wash in and out, so does spiritual intensity. That’s why we need mountain tops and gently rolling plains, peak experiences and routine, moments that stand out and later places and spaces that reflect awareness back to those peak moments from exactly where we are.

That’s the Jewish spiritual calendar’s middle path, the Goldilocks spiritual sweet spot – the “to and fro,” the “ebb and flow.” In just that way, we must return after the peak experience of the High Holy Days. We must feel some sense of spiritual hangover, burnout or letdown. This is the very downdraft that propels us into the rest of our year, and prompts us to seek meaning and holiness in our daily lives – not just on the proverbial mountain of our holidays and synagogues.

This return from the High Holy Day heights isn’t un-spiritual: it’s just different spiritual. We downshift from the peak of the Jewish High Holy Days to the rolling plains of the year ahead, where most of us make most of our lives most of the time. This moment of transition is vital to integrate and recalibrate — to live in “real world” ways that ever better reflect our highest values (certain that we won’t always succeed, and we’ll return to the proverbial mountain next year to reboot). This gentle return to “real world” routine is a key spiritual goal in itself, much like a refractory period for a muscle to recover after exertion: we need it to be healthy and strong.

So if the end of the Jewish High Holy Days leaves you feeling spiritual burnout, or letdown, or exhilarated, or all the above, know that you’re in good company. We’ve come down from the mountains, and now the rolling plains of the year ahead await us. Let’s go.

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