Uncomfortable Spirituality

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A few days ago, my friend and Temple Shalom congregant, Andy Molinsky sent me a link to a recent blog post that he wrote for the Harvard Business Review. The title of the piece was Get Out of Your Comfort Zone. This was my sort of blog piece.

“No one likes to move beyond his or her comfort zone, but that’s really where the magic happens,” he writes. “It’s where we can grow, learn, and develop in a way that expands our horizons beyond what we thought was possible. Also, it’s terrifying.”

Spot on. Who ever would want to venture out to places unknown? It’s scary out there. But we also know that when we push to new horizons “that’s really where the magic happens.” From my vantage point, getting comfortable with being out of comfort is key to living a Jewish and spiritual life.

Think of Adam and Eve, placed in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is the comfort zone. Sure, Adam is there to till and tend it; yet, in the Garden everything is provided, with only one boundary defined: “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat of it,” instructs God to Adam (Genesis 2:15). There is more than enough to sustain Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, all the while Temptation plays his serpentine role. The Tree of Knowledge sits there in the Garden, tempting Adam and Eve to go against God’s directive, and to move outside the bounds of what’s allowable.

Much can and should be said about what it means to transgress against God’s commands. Yet, as an example of what it means to move outside a boundary or a comfort zone, its benefit is made clear by the text itself. After Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, their eyes open only to perceive that they were naked (3:7). In other words, doing something outside of the boundary brings learning about who you are at the core–your most naked self. Embarrassment and other emotional reactions included, transgression included, the fruit of the Tree yields knowledge, understanding, and insight. They can look at the natural world, with knowledge now at hand, to determine for themselves what is what. By transgressing against God, and by leaving the Garden, Adam and Eve enable their own personal growth. When we realize that we are free to explore, learn, and challenge, greater understandings of our world and of ourselves in that world emerge. Stepping out of our comfort zone is where the magic happens, and its where the spiritual growth happens. The Garden is the sanctuary, yet it is not the venue for spiritual growth.

This point was brought home for me last month, in a session I attended, at the Union for Reform Judaism‘s Biennial Convention. I attended a forum on the future of the synagogue, in which one of the panelists was Rabbi Sharon Brous, the spiritual leader of Ikar, a congregation in Los Angeles, CA. In her presentation, she gave a great line: Discomfort is a spiritual practice.

Amen to that. When we enter spaces in which we are prompted to be uncomfortable, our bodies, our minds, and our spirits are engaged in the process of trying to figure out how we fit into that space. For those who have ever been to a yoga class, we know this discomfort when the instructor shows some sort of up-side-down move saying, “Oh, it’s so easy!” and all we can do is fight to keep upright and not fall over on our face. That discomfort is frustrating; still, it is part of the practice, and it’s the reason we go back for another yoga class after that one. 

Somewhere along the way, I heard that a rabbi’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to create sanctuary for people when they come to be spiritually engaged. When we need that comfort, there is no better place to be than among our family and friends in our own community. The sanctuary is the place you go to get calm from the storm. If the objective is to be there for people in that time, we–spiritual leaders and synagogues–are hitting the mark. If the objective is to stimulate spiritual growth and exploration, the sanctuary as shelter, solely, will not yield those sort of results.

I want magic to happen when we push ourselves beyond our spiritual comfort zone, I want our spiritual horizons expanded, and I want our congregations to be ready and equipped for individuals who want to engage in that sacred business. 

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One thought on “Uncomfortable Spirituality

  1. jodiecutter says:

    Wow Rabbi Hirsch. Spot on. Leave it to you to reinterpret one of our most controversial biblical moments in a positive and inspirational light. It is so interesting that you used the yoga metaphor, because as I was reading your post and before you mentioned yoga, that is exactly what I was thinking. This phrase of yours: “When we enter spaces in which we are prompted to be uncomfortable, our bodies, our minds, and our spirits are engaged in the process of trying to figure out how we fit into that space” sounds like exactly how I feel in yoga when I am trying to escape a pose, or wondering if I will last through the next hour of the room heated beyond comfort, to discomfort. I never thought of any of this in the way that you illustrate. Thanks!!

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