As a young American Jew, Sara Riger didn’t find that Judaism resonated with her spiritual aspirations. Like many others, she travelled to India and was drawn to Hinduism. After returning home and completing university, she spent the next 15 years living at an ashram teaching Vedanta philosophy and meditation.
That wasn’t the final stop on her spiritual journey. Today, she lives in Jerusalem and is a best-selling author and teacher of Jewish spirituality. In a recent interview, Rigler was asked what was lacking in the Judaism of her youth. She said that Judaism was presented to her as a culture, heritage and identity, but not as a path to personal growth.
When we observe a child develop during the first decade of their life, we’re witness to incredible changes and maturation. There’s virtually nothing that a newborn has in common with an adolescent. The same seismic changes occur over the next 10 years as well – from little kid to young adult almost ready for marriage. But what real growth takes place between 20 and 30 and in succeeding decades? There may be more grey hair and a larger waistline, but is there real personal development?
Sadly, Rigler never saw in Judaism any guidance on how to become someone with more patience and inner peace. She never understood how the Judaism she was raised in helped nurture a kinder and more generous nature. She didn’t see a technology for personal transformation. She was fortunate at least to have discovered this core part of Judaism later in life.
The midrash actually teaches that the Torah and its practices were given for no other reason than to refine our characters (Leviticus Rabbah 13:3). Along these lines, the Gaon of Vilna wrote, “For a person is alive only in order to break a [negative] character trait that he has not broken until now. Therefore, one should always strengthen one’s self, for if he does not strengthen himself, why is he alive?”
The Torah commands us to count the 49 days between the start of Passover and Shavuot, when the Almighty revealed the Torah to us at Mount Sinai (Leviticus 23:15-21). Our sages teach that these are special days of both anticipation and preparation. We “count down” in excitement toward the great day and make each day count by working on perfecting our character traits and actualizing our potential. It’s a widespread custom to study one chapter each week from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that focuses on personal growth.
The Torah directs us to follow the ways of God (Deuteronomy 28:9). Kabbalistic literature refers to 10 sefirot, ways in which God relates to the world. Some people have the practice of working each week on another one of these attributes with a regimen of study, meditation and exercises. For example, during the first of the seven weeks, people may focus on various aspects of the trait of chesed (kindness). The idea of dedicating a period of time to working on our character traits is also a central aspect of Mussar practice that has become increasing popular in recent years.
Rabbi Michael Skobac is director of education and counselling at Jews for Judaism.