Rabbi Reflection: Plans for Winter (Inner) Travel

By Rabbi Barbara Cohen / Congregation Ahavath Sholom

How do we know if we are on the right inner path? What are the signposts – do we recognize them and what do they say that gives us the sense that we are or are not living the life that we are supposed to be living?

What did you want to be when you grew up? Did the way to that hoped-for future seem clear even in your child mind? How close did you get? Or were there impediments, both real and imposed from the voices in your personal and communal life that stick in your head to this day that kept you from getting there? If you wanted to be in a relationship, did you find your soul mate? The first time, the second time – or did that person somehow get away? What are your personal beliefs about having free will and the impact of destiny … karma, bashert, preordained experiences?

I had never heard of this word until today … “compatibilism” … but what I learned it means is the extent to which we weigh these two seemingly opposite beliefs…free will and preordination… and how we might consider their dual impact on this journey we are on called Life. The belief in this paradox exists in our Jewish tradition. We can go back to the Garden of Eden to find that the ‘gift of free will" comes with the bite of the fruit and its consequences. Good news, bad news…who knows? How much control did we believe we had in what happened in our lives and how much of it seemed like fate, ordained or random, the proverbial thumbs up or down?

I want to offer this topic as a focus of reflection, as a suggestion of a process to peel away what keeps us from being our authentic selves. If you ask people, “Who and what is your authentic self?”, the answer is often, “I don’t really know” or “What do you mean?” I know that there is no easy answer to this question, maybe because we had never thought about it consciously, or no one ever asked us. Perhaps that authentic self was buried under years of the realities of everyday responsibility or imposed limitations, dreams, and goals deferred. Perhaps, most painfully, that authentic self was buried beneath a sense that no one really cared or that the question itself was frivolous, and we were not entitled to find the answer.

I would like to propose that maybe this is a good time to be asking. I imagine that most of the people reading this article are mature and have lots of life experience behind them – maybe with some time and, one hopes, with some good health and mental capacity to devote to this. “Too late,” you say. “Why bother?” you ask. Because we are living in existentially turbulent times and there is already enough headspace dedicated to anxiety about COVID, politics, and the future of the planet. All are important topics that we should be thinking and doing something about. They do tend, however, to be draining of our inner peace reserves.

The work to rediscover and reclaim parts of our exiled selves can be very restorative and worth the effort. And with the winter coming, whether you will be here in the snow or in the warmth somewhere else, I hope you might build in the time to just sit and think about your inner heart and what it seeks. This is the work of spiritual direction. May it point you somewhere … a destination longingly recalled and waiting to be found.

With you on this journey, sincerely,

Rabbi Barbara Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Great Barrington