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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley Ph.D.

Growing in Wisdom


Traditionally, at Rosh HaShanah we wish each other a "good and sweet year" (shanah tova umetukah). In more modern circles, the wish has become "may you have a meaningful High Holy Days experience." Despite the lack of any musical ring to this phrase, I prefer this modern sentiment. The idea of a meaningful life is a key part of the interior dimension of wisdom.

In the past weeks, as I think about wisdom, I have been focusing on wisdom in the interpersonal realm, the area of people's lives in which I witness the most unnecessary pain. Last week, I began focusing on the more inner life experience of a person of wisdom. As I imagine a person of wisdom, I see a person not only wise about the interpersonal realm, but also a person devoted to cultivating a meaningful life. Inside of that interpersonal wisdom is great work being done.

What is a meaningful experience for you? Let's put aside adventure and fun, and focus on moments that are filled with meaning, those moments when you feel that life's purpose is filling you and unfolding before you.

Going from the inside out, I would say that a deep inner experience is profoundly meaningful for many people, and certainly for those who are on a wisdom path. The inner life work of descending into the depths of the soul, ascending into the world of spirit, examining the contents of consciousness, and finding both wonder and stillness there is a key part of that interior wisdom. If one is particularly focused, one can experience the Good, the True and the Holy in ways that are hard to express without resorting to poetry. Is this prayer?

If so, it is not petitionary prayer. Not necessarily religious prayer; religion without theology, you might say. Something more like contemplative prayer - being "with the temple" - communing with the sanctuary within. This contemplative work, when applied to the ego self, can be transformative.

One part of the many definitions of wisdom that I have read comes next. Wise people have "rich factual knowledge" - they tend to know a lot. But wise people use that rich factual knowledge. I think that people of wisdom find great meaning in reading the words of others, poetic, literary and sacred texts that express or shape those deep inner experiences. From a Jewish perspective, that "rich factual knowledge" includes the Bible, the prayer book, and a long list of Rabbinic, Kabbalistic, and Chasidic writings. I would include sacred texts of other traditions, and books about other traditions. I would also include a whole array of philosophic, psychological and spiritual writings. I, like you, have books on my shelves that have caused me to shudder as the mystery channeled its way through those books into me. I know these books, and in some deep sense, they know me.

Perhaps the most meaningful experiences for people of true wisdom are conversations with family and friends, and for those of us in this work, in counseling. Being present to the souls of others on this precarious journey draws meaning and purpose into life in exquisite moments of pain and beauty. Wisdom is brought to life.

Wishing you a meaningful year, for me, means at least wishing you the experience of personal depth, of engaging with literary and sacred beauty and cultivating transformative relationships with others.

What do the Jewish High Holy Days have to do with this? First, plan to make your time in any service a time for individual contemplation. Now and then, tune out whatever the rabbi or cantor is doing, maybe tune out the people around you, and sink into your depths. Come with a map for an inner journey.

Engage the beauty of the prayer book. It is hard poetry sometimes, hard in many ways. Don't read it literally. Read it as a mystery.

Don't forget the spirit of the days. Forgiveness, repairing, returning to the authentic self. Use the teachings of the days to make our lives with others filled with moments of that exquisite beauty. Grow in wisdom.

These thoughts shape my goals for our High Holy Days services.

Rosh HaShana is in about a week and half. Work on making this coming year- in spite of bitter moments and bad days - a good and sweet one, filled with growing in wisdom.


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