Imagine someone who studies to become a great musician. In the course of training, this person connects so deeply with the spirit of the music that she is moved to help humanity by doing benefit concerts for charity and teaching those who don’t have the means to pay for lessons. We might say this person has really internalized the inner essence of the music, expressing her art not only through her instrument but through the whole of her life.
Now imagine someone who trains to become a better person, working on his character traits. He also raises money for charity, volunteers his time toward noble causes and learns to treat everyone with honor and compassion. Obviously, this is a wonderful thing, but would we call that person a musician? Would we say that person has mastered music because he also has the “essence” of music, just like the first example? Of course not. And yet, this is how many people see religion and spirituality. Like music, religion is an art. Its essence is surely expressed in living an ethical life, but it cannot be reduced to ethics, anymore than music or science or academics can. All these different fields can and should be used to help others, but they also have beauty and value in and of themselves. We might say the art of religion is the giving of form to the intangible realities of the spirit- of awe, surrender, devotion, love and, at the deepest level, transcendence of the ordinary dualistic nature of perception and feeling.
In this week’s parsha Lekh L’kha, Avram is told by the Divine to leave his birthplace and his father’s house to go to the “land that I will show you”. The “place of family” is our conditioning- it’s everything that is familiar to us. The “land” that is “shown” is the Great Secret hidden in plain sight- the awesome sacredness of Existence, normally hidden by our mind’s conditioning. To reach this spiritual world, we don’t need to “go” anywhere; it is already here! We do need to leave behind the familiar, and that means leaving behind our thinking, at least for long enough so that Reality to begin revealing Itself.
Once Avram enters the “land”, what does he do? He calls the Divine by name and builds an altar. That is, he begins to engage in the art of religion. The “land” is wild, just as the ineffable sacredness everywhere is wild. It doesn’t always express Itself in an obvious way, though sometimes It breaks forth into our lives without warning. But we have the power to shape our lives according to It’s sacred call. To respond to that call is the art of religion, the art of spiritual living.
What is the altar you are called to build? As we move from the lofty plane of the holidays into the day-to-day, how will you work to embody the spirit in your life at a deeper level than before?