Tending the Fire of Spiritual Practice

It happens every year. Just a few weeks -- even a few days -- after the intensity of Counting the Omer and the revelation of Shavuot, Jewish time quickly goes back to "normal."

Many of us miss terribly the daily connection of the Omer. Even for those who had an encounter with the Mystery on Shavuot, who received a glimpse of who we are and what is ours to do, the experience is at best fleeting. As the Torah reports, even vivid memories fade quickly.

In some ways, this time can feel like the arid desert that the ancient Israelites faced. So what now? How do we metaphorically come down from the mountain and live fully during this stretch between now and the turn of the new Jewish year? How do we live from the experiences of this time?

The Torah teaches: keep the fire burning. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar -- it shall not go out. (Lev. 6:6)

The flames of this fire first appeared to Moshe at the burning bush:

A messenger of the One appeared to him in a blazing fire in the midst of a bush. (Exodus 3:2).
This fire filled the sky as it descended upon Mt. Sinai.

The One came down on the mountain in fire. (Exodus 19:18)

Face within face, the One spoke to you on the mountain in the midst of the fire. (Deuteronomy 5:4)

On Shavuot this fire is awakened in us and we are reminded that now it is ours to tend.
A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar -- it shall not go out. (Leviticus. 6:6)

This is a fire of devotion, connection, awareness. The flames bring light that helps us see where we are and who we are meant to be. We tend this fire through practice, through mitzvot: acts of connection and love.

Commentators through the ages have pointed out how, in the Book of Exodus, the Torah portion describing the transcendent encounter at Sinai (Yitro) is followed by a portion called Mishpatim (Rules) and consists of just that: laws, guidelines and mitzvot. As author Jack Kornfield puts it, "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry". We come back from our deep encounters and spiritual awakenings to the details of everyday life. My experience is that these mishpatim, these guidelines, these everyday mitzvot, are acts of connection. These small, daily acts of spiritual practice are precisely what we need to keep the fire burning as we navigate our day-to-day lives.

Now is a time to wonder about a simple commitment, a to practice to take on, not necessarily forever, but for the next few months. We ask ourselves: What can I do every day, or every few days, that will help me stay mindful and awake, that will help me keep returning to awareness and presence? What is a practice I can do that will keep the fire burning?

As we are considering this, it is important that we remember to take on a practice that is realistic, that is doable, that is reasonable in our lives. For example, some people decide to say the prayer "Modah Ani L'fanecha" (I am grateful. I live in relationship) every morning on arising, or to say the Sh'ma at night. Some decide to say a prayer before they eat in the morning. Others take on a meditation practice for five minutes a day or decide to turn off their computers for all or part of Shabbat.

Once something appears to us, we make a promise to do our best to fulfill this practice. We carry it with us through the summer and into the fall, holding it as we enter into Rosh Hashanah.

Then on kol nidre, the night of Yom Kippur, we reflect on our promises, upon our practices, and how they have shaped our paths. If a practice remains true, we carry it with us into the new year. If not, let we it go in the light of Yom Kippur and ask for guidance to go forward.

As we move through this period, I have been posting meditations based on the Psalms as daily reminders to tend the flames of practice.

Through the journey of the Omer and the encounters of Shavuot, the fire has been renewed within us. It is burning on the altar, calling us into each moment and lighting the ways forward. May we tend the flames with devotion and care -- and by doing so bring forth blessings for our selves, each other, and all the world.