Thursday, May 3, 2012

Washing Away the Week

We are told that there are so many ways to reduce or eliminate stress. Exercise. Meditate. Yoga. All of them are effective, but I found a new one last week that takes all of a minute (yes, a minute, if you are among the ADD population). It combines an insight found in an online publication with the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I considered doing it, figured out how to make it real, and oh my - it really worked.

The article, which appeared in the online edition of Spirituality and Health, reflected on the healing aspects of water. While immersion into a ritual bath has long been part of Jewish religious practice, not every Jew takes advantage of the practice, and frankly, it takes the time to find a local mikveh, get there, wait your get the idea. And I'm unaware (although I'm counting on my followers to correct me if I'm wrong) of any water practice among other faith traditions. The author of the article suggested that we take the opportunity to use the healing powers of water at times that would seem to be fairly mundane: when we take our morning shower, she suggests, allow the water to roll off us and speak or think words of purification for the day to come. Or if we shower at night, let it be a time to wash away the stress and spiritual impurities of the day. Remarkable, I thought. Really wonderful.

Then, a couple of days later, I took my turn in a rotation of rabbis who have been teaching Rabbi Heschel's book The Sabbath at my local synagogue. One of the points Rabbi Heschel makes in the chapter we were studying is the need to prepare spiritually for Shabbat. Even in traditional households, where women are focused on the home and children, the end of Friday preparations can be hectic - make sure the food is cooked, the children are bathed and dressed, the table is set, the candles are ready to be lit...But so much the more so in our contemporary society when both parents are often hurrying home from work, and certainly in the winter months when the sun sets early, we race home, checking all our prep items, and rush to our candles to light them (and the men often rushing to make the early Friday night service).

Spiritual life takes preparation. It takes as much work as preparing for an interview or an exam. Rushing toward the spiritual takes energy away from the ability to experience the connection we seek. We are too tired to appreciate what we have.

As the group discussed the need to stop and prepare, I shared with them to idea of using water. Perhaps, I suggested, we could make the point of washing our hands just before candle lighting or reciting kiddush (sanctification of Shabbat made over a cup of wine) or heading off to synagogue. And then I resolved to see if I could craft such a ritual in real life.

The next week was a killer. One stressful day after another. Difficult issues to confront. Decisions to be made. Disappointments to deal with. On Friday, I made sure my kitchen was prepared, and I set up my candles. Then I remembered the ritual I wanted to invent. I found the special cup I use to wash my hands before hamotzi (the benediction over bread), went to the sink and did the following:
1. Filled the cup.
2. Poured water over my hands but didn't recite a benediction since I wasn't ready to eat yet.
3. Shook out my hands.

It was here that the magic happened. I shook my hands only three or four times, but each time was a single strong, decisive shake. And with each shake, I let go of something.
"letting go of the stress"
"letting go of the worry"
"letting go of the anger"

and then I held up my hands as a doctor would when a nurse is going to glove her before surgery and I said
"getting ready to receive the holy" And the holding up of my hands and the words I spoke made me aware of the presence of God as I normally am not aware except for the moments after lighting my candles or putting on my tallit.
Then I went to dry my hands. And the most remarkable thing happened. I realized I'd shaken loose all the stress I'd brought with me to Friday night. I was the calmest I'd been in days. When my cousin came home I wished her a Shabbat shalom and smiled and she asked what was going on that made me so happy, and I told her about the ritual.

The calm I felt on Friday night has carried me through the week. I've ceased worrying about things I can't do anything about. I've slept better. The effect of a few shakes of my hands has been profound.

Tomorrow night I'll do it again. And prepare myself once again for a Shabbat of peace.