by Sam Glaser
My wife buys the smallest packages of food in order to conserve space in our three-shelf pantry. When I open it on any given morning and find one of those 10oz. boxes of Cheerios I cringe and dream of a time when we can shop at Costco. Furthermore, I insist on having a plethora of cereal options so that I can mix and match my breakfast. She retaliates by buying the mini jars of peanut butter. I get the same grief when it comes to my closet full of clothes. She argues that I have more than she does and calls me a pack rat. I respond that I like lots of choices and see no reason to throw my old favorites away, as long as they still fit. So too with my CD collection, the gear in my music studio, my library. Am I too attached to material things? Yes. But I prefer to give my obsession another name.
Shefa. Shefa is one of my favorite Hebrew words. It means abundance, and it’s something to which all of us aspire. On the most basic level it’s having plenty of money in your bank account. For our family, after our household expenses and day school tuition, this “plenty” is highly variable. I think my array of cereal and t-shirt choices is a subconscious attempt to live in that world of shefa, for at least some of my day. Another way we add shefa into our lives is by celebrating Shabbat in grand style. We get tremendous pleasure out of entertaining guests. Even though it’s expensive to buy all the food and my wife works so hard to make a delicious and beautifully presented meal, one day a week we reign as the monarchs of Livonia Avenue.
I resonate with the idea of living large. I love my king size bed, skiing big mountains, eating overstuffed burritos. I sit in an enormous relax-the-back chair in my studio; I love epic movies on big screens and all-day-long music festivals. Big things give me big joy. I recognize that this conspicuous consumption flies in the face of politicalcorrectness. We live at a time when conscientious Americans are trying to reduce our carbon footprints, bringing canvas bags to the supermarket, driving hybrids and recycling. I’m not suggesting that we abandon these astute practices, God forbid! I am suggesting that we distinguish between minimizing our consumption and maximizing our joy.
Some feel that invoking shefa to accumulate wealth is at odds with Judaism or a liberal agenda. The fact is that all of our patriarchs and matriarchs were loaded. Their illustrious stories are enshrined in our national consciousness to teach that financial abundance isn’t just tolerated, it’s encouraged! The single caveat is that one must remain a mensch (kind-hearted person.) When Abraham left Egypt with the trappings of wealth he took care that his vast flocks didn’t graze on anyone else’s property. Isaac managed his holdings with a low profile and when neighbors maliciously tampered with his wells he reached out with overtures of peace. When Jacob made his fortune he radically transitioned from hardened businessman into the spiritual father of the Jewish People.
Kabbalah describes a higher meaning of shefa: our God is essentially GOOD, and created the universe to extend His/Her good in every direction. Shefa isn’t just material abundance; it refers to the FLOW of God’s beneficence in every form. Imagine a brilliant beam emanating from a spotlight towards a performer on stage. This is like the divine light highlighting all creation. Spotlight operators have the choice of filters to dim the light all the way down to near darkness. What most self-help books and seminars attempt to show us is that we are in control of these filters and can open or close our personal flow, based on our actions and attitudes.
I chose to write about shefa this month because I feel that we tend to self-limit our own shefa, the flow of God’s light in our lives. We allow global economic woes to diminish our outlook, feel beaten down at work, have less time to do the things we enjoy, feel hopeless trying to pay stacks of bills with shrinking salaries, feel helpless dealing with health issues. Life is scary. Living in fear takes us out of the flow of shefa. The million-dollar question is how can we attract blessing in our income, health and happiness? Thankfully, for the Jewish people, there are very specific ways to master the law of attraction.
Our crowning quality as human beings is our freedom of choice. God created a world where we must choose constantly, where our own micro universes are manifestations of our daily choices. God implores us to “choose life,” to arm ourselves with the information of exactly what is life and what is death and to choose appropriately. Just like we might obsess over which new HD3DTV to purchase on Black Friday, in order to get into a place of divine flow we must we investigate our spiritual choices and then commit to a path.
Our most fundamental choice is whether or not we choose to have God in our lives. Choosing God requires that we create the space for a relationship and connect on a regular basis. You wouldn’t call a once a year Facebook post a great relationship. That’s right, we need more than just the High Holidays to “go with the flow.” Relationship building in Judaism is a two way street: we have to pray with passion and we have to study God’s Torah to hear God’s voice in return. Any deep relationship has the important prerequisite of humility. With the same stubbornness that I will drive around lost rather than ask for directions, I often forget that God is here to help me and bring bounty in my life. The Kotzker Rebbe says, “Where is God? Wherever you let God in.” Get your ego in check, open your heart and simply ask for guidance and sustenance. This is the magic of prayer. To get on the E-ticket ride on this Heavenly wave, all we have to do is ASK for it.
Another aspect of bringing shefa into our lives is in fashioning vessels that can handle ever-increasing blessing. A sixteen-year-old praying for a red Ferrari most likely is not ready for such a vehicle. The answer to his prayer, regardless of how earnestly he asks, is likely going to be NO. Too much shefa can destroy us. Over our lifetime God gives us challenges to see how much shefa we are ready for. The tests we get on a daily basis are here to build us into people who can deal with greater gifts. Only God really knows how much we can handle, even better than we know ourselves. Of course, random acts of loving-kindness are shefa“magnets”; if we prove that we know how to do the right thing in any situation, clearly God can trust us with abundance. God aches to give us more, but we have to CHOOSE the relationship, we have to ASK for what we want and we have to BUILD ourselves into individuals who can handle abundance.
At a conference at which I was performing a few years ago I met a Chassidic maple syrup farmer named Shmuel Simenowitz. He lectures on the subject of eco-farming, getting back to the land and working with one’s hands. One thing he warned of however, is knowing when to be thrifty and when to aim for abundance. We must tread lightly on our planet, but with God we have to live LARGE and ask for the moon. He brought with him a diminutive, two-handled cup for the ritual washing of the hands. He explained that it was given to him by a Jewish ecological organization to minimize the water used in the hand washing ceremony. In no uncertain terms Reb Shmuel lambasted this assault at shefa. Indeed, we bring abundance into our lives when we wash with a lot of water! In other words, don’t hold back with your mitzvot. Do them with alacrity and dedication. Give big charity, make loud blessings over your food, learn Torah with fervor. Take shorter showers but pour it on when you wash.
My regular readers know that I’m a big advocate of halacha, or Jewish law. Halacha has at its root the word “pathway” or how one walks. Halacha may seem formfitting but it is truly a unique channel for each individual. It serves to orient our neshamot (souls) on a step by step ascent towards that spiritual beam of light. Halacha gives us the ability to know the choices at hand and to choose wisely. This is true “informed choice.” Halacha teaches us how to walk humbly before our Creator. It gives us a daily workout of our spiritual muscles in the form of prayer and blessings, even when we don’t feel like working out. It doesn’t turn us into robots; it molds us into the best individuals that we can possibly be, the most refined version of ourselves, the ideal receptacles for God’s blessings. Just like planets and atoms have orbits, animals have instincts and trees know which way is up, so too do we human beings have a divine pathway.
One issue that I’m sure is not unique to the Jewish people is that we often let our tightly defined denominations limit us rather than allow us to bask in the rays of unadulterated shefa. We tend to deem those less observant than we are as heretics and more observant as fanatics. When I grew up in the Conservative movement, I somehow thought that the laws of kashrut were only for the rabbi. I often hear my Reform friends say “well, as a Reform Jew I don’t have to ________” (fill in the blank with whatever mitzvah is deemed too difficult.) Some Modern Orthodox Jews scoff at their “backwards” Haredi neighbors who are simply trying to be earnest in their divine service. My point is that we are all on a personal growth continuum
and should use our Jewish institutions to enhance our connection rather than provide a glass ceiling to our growth. My friend David Suissa comments that in religious life we decide, “that’s not what I do” and then defend that stance religiously! We argue: why try a mitzvah one time if it makes us a “hypocrite” for not sticking with it? As Jews, our access to shefa is closely aligned with the mitzvot that we take on. Take a chance! Be a hypocrite once in a while. Suissa quotes Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz as saying “God counts only the mitzvahs you do, not the ones you don’t.”
Another point of blockage to that loving beam of spiritual light is our own feelings of inferiority. Often we feel like we are not deserving. We can be our own worst enemy. We label ourselves “bad Jews” and sinners and become paralyzed with depression and doubt. There is no such thing as a perfect person. Proverbs tell us that a righteous person falls seven times. But he or she gets back up! Dust yourself off, pound your chest, start a new day and get over it! God created teshuva (return to a spiritual path) before creating the world. God is infinite and therefore infinitely forgiving. God has such tremendous gifts in store for all of us. If we can just get out of our own way.
My wife loves me so much. A few months after the cereal argument she told me that she realizes that having great variety is an important ingredient in my personal quest for shefa. Now she not only provides it lovingly, she actively shops for the brands I like. The boxes are still small, however. Our relationship with our Creator is much like a marriage: success is based on knowing what makes your partner tick, expressing heartfelt gratitude, being sensitive to what makes the relationship flow and rectifying what doesn’t. God is continuously showering us with shefa, in the form of the breath we take, our insight, relationships, awareness and inner peace. And of course, in wearing a favorite outfit, getting that perfect gig and blue-sky powder days on the slopes.