Have you ever found your Judaism to be just plain and simple unspiritual? I mean, there’s so much to do, and so many details to keep in mind, where’s all the spirituality?

Think about it: Much of Judaism is a vast, sprawling set of laws that govern pretty much everything you do. From the minute you wake up until the moment you go to sleep, there’s another do or don’t calling the shots.

Of course, there are Divine texts, values, ethics, and profound mystical ideas to explore. There’s no lack of scholarship in our faith. But the actual mitzvot we are instructed to keep, the very “stuff” of our majestic religion, seems to be hyper-focused on dry, banal action.

Wrapping cows’ hide around my arm, lighting a candle before sunset, or eating beef instead of pork are all—at the end of the day—simple actions that are not overtly spiritual. So where’s the G‑dliness, the holiness, in it all?

Washing Your Clothes in Wine

It’s a thorny question, one that Jewish scholars have grappled with for ages. There’s much to be said about this question in the Kabbalistic school of thought, and one of the answers is vividly portrayed in a startling metaphor in this week’s parshah.

Lying on his deathbed, our forefather Jacob gathers his children to give them each a final blessing before his departure from the world. The verses that describe the unique blessings he bestowed upon each of his 12 children are beautiful, mysterious, and remarkably poetic.

When it comes to Judah’s blessing, Jacob waxes poetic about the abundance of wine that will flow in the chunk of land destined for his descendants. Amidst the flowery language we find these words,1 “[He launders] his garment with wine, and with the blood of grapes binds his raiment.”

Wow! There will be so much wine that people will wash their clothes in it!

The imagery is quite vivid, but there is much more to the words than meets the eye. As we know, any verse in Torah is subject to layers of interpretation. Certainly such poetic verses contain multiple strata of meaning!

What, then, are we to learn from the imagery of a person laundering their suit in a wine bath? I can certainly think of better things to launder my clothes with…

Mitzvot Are Garments

Kabbalah speaks quite a bit about the concept of “garments.” It is a rich metaphor, as garments serve many functions: they protect, they serve as a mode of expression, and they can be switched out at will. There is meaning to each one of these details, but today, we will focus on one particular feature of your clothes: the fact that as much as they are an integral part of your persona, they are not you.

When you eat something, you ingest the food into your very bloodstream. Be it an egg sandwich, an apple, or a greasy falafel … once it’s past your palette, it’s a part of you.

In contrast, as much as you love your thousand-dollar suit or gown, it’s not you. Yes, you wear it proudly, it makes you feel good, it enhances your appearance (and can even score you a job!), but at the end of the day, it’s not you. It’s simply something you wear, a suit or a gown that surrounds you and sits on top of your body. When you arrive home at night, you take it off and put on something else.

This is all a metaphor for a mitzvah. Like the suit or the gown that you love so much but is still around you, a mitzvah is also “around” or “above” you. Yes, it has a physical representation of the cowhide you wrap around your arm or the candle you light before Shabbat, but the G‑dly energy that it evokes, the Divine space into which it reaches, is far above and beyond anything you can perceive or imagine. There most definitely is much more to a mitzvah than what meets the eye: by following what G‑d tells you to do, you are literally taking part of G‑d and bringing it into your life. You just don’t see it.

It’s like that suit or gown: You’re wearing it, but you’re not it. The spiritual revolution, the tremendous G‑dly energy that is triggered by your action, is not something you can ever really understand or “ingest” like an apple or a falafel, but it is something you can wear like a suit or a gown—it sits on top of you, hovering just above, or beyond, your consciousness.

There is indeed a part of you that does get what a mitzvah is all about, that does experience this tremendous G‑dly energy. That would be your soul, the Divine consciousness within each of us that is intrinsically connected to G‑d.

Bring in the Joy

But here’s the problem: All this talk about a mitzvah being something tremendous yet just beyond reach only exacerbates our problem—where is the spirituality? Perhaps in some sort of spiritual alter-reality, my mitzvah is tremendous. But in my life, it’s not. So, what gives?

To make matters worse, our Sages tell us that even the wicked are “full of mitzvot like a pomegranate.”2 Well, if every Joe Schmoe is literally stuffed with mitzvot, it must mean that mitzvot don’t automatically bring along tremendous spiritual impact. If they did, those pomegranate-stuffed bad guys wouldn’t be wicked! So, if the default of a mitzvah is that it doesn’t necessarily bring along the spiritual goods, what are we to do?

“Wash your clothes in wine,” is the answer: Wine is an obvious metaphor for joy. Everyone knows that when you imbibe a fine glass or two, it makes you joyous. There’s a reason why the United States alone consumes over four billion bottles of the boozy goodness a year.

And that is the “trick,” the magic ingredient that you ought to mix into your religious endeavors to make them tick, to tap into the spiritual inspiration that they really are. When a person approaches their Judaism with joy, a pure and unadulterated elation that he or she has the opportunity to connect with the Divine, to touch a slice of infinity, that alone bestows the very infinity and Divinity they seek.3

You see, joy is an expansive experience. The guy who usually doesn’t open his wallet to anyone is suddenly handing out hundred-dollar bills at his daughter’s wedding. It’s something we all experience: you’re happy about your new child, closing on a house, or winning a vacation to Mauritius, and you feel wide open, exuberant and free to tackle anything. That tough phone call to your estranged cousin all of a sudden seems doable—because you’re just so happy.

That’s what joy brings to your Judaism. When you take your mitzvot—those garments that are only “worn” but not truly ingested—and bathe them in the equivalent of the soppy joy of a piquant bottle of wine, your heart and soul open wide, introducing the joy of a mitzvah and the inspiration that comes with it.

I have an acquaintance whom I know to be deeply religious, and his entire family is that way too. I took the opportunity to ask him, “What is it about your family that every one of you is so pious and devout?”

He answered me, “I can’t tell you for sure. But one thing I do know: Whenever my father would do anything related to a mitzvah requiring considerable effort, he would make sure to say, ‘Ah! How nice it is to sweat for a mitzvah!’ Whether it was hauling heavy Sukkah boards or painstakingly rolling wicks for his Chanukah menorah, it was always a pure act of joy.”

I think he was on to something.