Rabbis Without Borders
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In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several groups of 5th graders at one of my local middle schools, Mill Pond School, in Westborough, MA. The entire grade, perhaps around 175 students, has been studying different aspects of Wellness, with a month to explore new habits and practices. I was invited to share some thoughts on what contributes to wellness from a spiritual perspective. Even defining what we mean by spiritual wellness isn’t such an easy task but, after starting our time together with an uplifting gratitude chant song, accompanied by some drumming to provide a bit of rhythm, many students could provide a word to express what they were feeling. And spirituality has a lot to do with things that we feel and experience. We know it when we feel it. Words like ‘whole’, ‘grateful’, ‘relaxed’, ‘happy’, ‘connected’, and so on, came forth from the students.
I shared four key ingredients with the students: gratitude, ‘wow’ moments, ‘angel crossings’, and community belonging. Here’s why I think these are some of the key ingredients in a prescription for spiritual wellness.
This one may seem obvious, but it is about the ways that we can help ourselves to make gratitude into a habit. Many of us, especially those of us who are not naturally early risers, have a hard time starting the day this way. Its easier to be reluctant, grumpy, uncommunicative (and I count myself among such people). In Jewish spiritual practice, the first words to leave our lips when we are aware that we are no longer asleep are meant to be Modah Ani lefanecha… Thankful am I before You… The prayer goes on to express that we are thankful to have been gifted with another day. We acknowledge that the energy of life that is within us has been entrusted to our physical being by the Source of all Life. The statement encourages us to ponder, ‘what will I do with this precious gift today?’ Not everyone starts their day with a prayer, but it is one container that holds a good habit – kicking off the day by flicking the energy switch inside of us toward gratitude. Our students shared ways in which they expressed gratitude in the morning – to a parent who made their breakfast or packed their lunch, or to a dog that greeted them joyfully, for example.
We all have them, every single day. But giving them a label helps us to notice them and pause, even if just for a few seconds, to acknowledge when we’ve just had one. If I were speaking to an entirely Jewish group, I’d label these ‘Bracha’ moments. In traditional Judaism, we utter a one-line blessing to acknowledge a great many of these wow moments; when we see a rainbow when we see the first blossoms in Spring, and so on. The 5th grade students came up with many of their own ‘wow’ moments – watching the snow fall, looking at water droplets on a spider’s web, visiting Niagra Falls, watching horses galloping, and a great many more. Giving these a label – ‘a wow moment’ means that, even in the midst of a day or a time in our life when we feel sad or stressed, we are likely to have several of these moments and noticing them helps to lift us up and turn our thoughts away from those things that might be the source of sadness for us.
As might be expected, when I asked the students what picture they had in their mind when I said the word ‘angel’, most of them had a picture of a being in white, with wings, and a halo over their head. These might be the artistic rendering of heavenly angels. But, as I explained to the students, the word ‘angel’ in English comes from the word ‘angelos’ in Greek. The Greek word means ‘messenger’; an accurate translation of the Hebrew word ‘malach’ which is the original biblical term. In a great many biblical stories, the malach looks like an ordinary person. When they make an appearance in the story of one of the main characters, that character is often walking in one direction in life and, as a result of the encounter, changes direction. The first of these is Hagar, who meets a man who tells her to return to Abraham’s home to give birth to her son. There are also the men who tell Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child and who tell Lot and his family that they must leave Sodom. It is a man who appears in a field to tell Joseph where he will find his brothers, and it is a man who wrestles with Jacob.
It is often not until many years after we have had an encounter that we can look back and realize that if it wasn’t for that person and what they did for us or said to us in a particular moment in our lives, what followed next for us may never have unfolded. I shared the story of a friend who encouraged me to attend a student event that I had been reluctant to try. It was at the headquarters of the Reform movement in the UK. But, had I not been persuaded, I may never have met the remarkable rabbis and role models who inspired me to re-engage with Judaism, and every other experience that I had followed from that moment, leading me to now be a Rabbi speaking to a room of 5th graders in Central Massachusetts! The students could identify their own angel meetings – whole new social circles that had opened up to them because they were persuaded to try a new club or sport, or a teacher who helped them overcome a learning challenge that opened up new opportunities for them when they felt like giving up.
Why not simply label these as significant people in our lives? For me, calling them ‘angel meetings’ helps me to recognize the ways in which my life sometimes gets directed by forces that are beyond me; to recognize that there is an energetic flow between all things that sometimes carries me to places that I never expected to go.
A recent Pew survey found that people who are active in religious congregations tend to be more civically involved and tend to report higher levels of happiness. Many people, when they encounter challenges or are feeling anxious, tend to withdraw from community. But if we can counter those inclinations, being involved in community, and especially if we are able to give of ourselves to others, can help us maintain our sense of perspective and equilibrium, both important to spiritual wellness. Our problems may not be solved, but we may feel less alone. Additionally, by having a group activity or endeavor to occupy some of our time can help us to reduce the amount of mental energy we are directing toward our own challenges, enabling us to experience more moments of happiness and satisfaction even in the midst of our own difficulties. The 5th grade students could identify ways in which their Scouts groups and sports teams, as well as their churches and other faith communities, provided that sense of community for them as well as organizing ways of giving back to the wider community together.