A New Year and a New Start for Body and Soul
The secular New Year in the middle of winter never made sense to me. In contrast, Fall, with its themes of return (of people to school, to work and seriousness from the frivolity of summer; of leaves and flowers back to the earth after their rich and glorious bloom) and dying/retreating (of plants, and birds, insects; people and other animals hunkering down, seeking shelter and going inside) is a much better time to think about letting go and starting over.
The Days of Repentance can feel dark and despairing—as the hours of daylight diminish, we are here, yet again, pouring out our heart, petitioning the Creator (the Divine Presence), our friends and ourselves to forgive us for our deeds, thoughts and emotions expressed that did not honor our true and holy nature or that of others. When (not if) we find our lips muttering the same words of shame and regret (even as we speak them as a congregation), we can feel alone with our imperfections and helpless to make real and lasting change.
At the same time, though, the holidays offer opportunity and hope to wipe the slate clean and make a new start. We can put the past behind us and begin again—forgiven and encouraged to move forward.
So, how do we make the most of this opportunity of a New Year to create real and lasting change? We have the will, but we often lack the way. Jews in nineteenth century Lithuania rekindled the ancient practice of Mussar (ethical instruction) to create a social movement of self-improvement. With Mussar, they established a curriculum of daily self-accountability employing study, mediation, chanting, journaling and introspective awareness. A practitioner of Mussar refines herself by concentrating on one of thirteen ethical soul traits (middot) one week at a time. Over the course of a year, each trait will be studied four times.
For people like me who have a lot of energy (read: ADHD) and learn through the medium of physical and kinetic sensation, combining Mussar with yoga offers the whole self (mind, body and soul) an opportunity for an ongoing renaissance. When practicing humility, for example, I can choose a yoga pose such as handstand which consistently escapes my mastery. I feel truly humbled by the pose as my feet fall behind my head and I land, yet again, in a back bend. In contrast, the shoulder opening required in cow-face pose reminds me that change also requires persistence. It took me almost six years to find the flexibility to “bind” my hands on the right.
Whether alone or together, Mussar and yoga, offer the practitioner the chance to approach the New Year not as a month-long run of holidays but as a launching pad or a new leg of a spiritual journey. A spiritual journey includes a desire to experience on an intimate level the Divine Presence—to see the hand of G-d in things both magnificent (a mountain vista) and mundane (a sink full of dirty dishes), and a willingness to participate with G-d in one’s own continuous creation—the path of moral self-improvement. Mussar enables both.
This summer the Jewish community lost one of the great pioneers of contemporary Jewish spirituality, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi—founder of the Renewal Movement. Reb Zalman’s legacy to the Jewish community and especially to Jewish leaders is the recognition that we are all called upon to participate with G-d in the re-creation of ourselves and our community. Whenever an influential leader dies there arises the pivotal question of “What happens now?” Is there a place in mainstream Judaism for Jewish seekers or will it remain the domain of a few special congregations, small chavurahs, and the unaffiliated? While most clergy (from Reform to Modern Orthodox) whom I meet are very open and even desirous of including more spiritually-oriented programming, many lay leaders are uncomfortable with Jewish spirituality and view seekers as outsiders who are unwilling to get involved with Jewish organizational life. Likewise, many spiritual seekers are equally contemptuous of Jewish organizational life, viewing it as an exclusive high-school-like social club.
In an era where Jewish affiliation is on the decline and young Jews are finding less connection to the idea of being Jewish, it seems a no-brainer that congregations could introduce their regular members to spiritual practices, many of which are very much a part of Jewish tradition, such as meditation and chanting, and simultaneously welcome in these wandering seekers.
New practices, expanding your limits: therein lies the hope of every season.
[Photo credit: Eddie Winter]
Edith R. Brotman, PhD, RYT 500 is a Wexner Heritage Alumna (Baltimore 2010) and an experienced educator and highly trained yoga teacher who is passionate about finding, creating and sharing meaningful spiritual connections to Judaism. Edith is a recipient of the Dorbrecht Grant for Judaic Yoga and was named one of Baltimore’s favorite yoga teachers in Baltimore Magazine’s “Best of Baltimore.” She has assumed many lay leadership roles at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, including serving on its board and Executive Committee and creating BHC’s Exploring Spirituality Series. These days Edith is leading Mussar Yoga workshops based on her recent book, Mussar Yoga (Jewish Lights, 2014). Edith can be reached at email@example.com.