Recently, a friend asked me how I’d define “spirituality.” I was perplexed by her question, because I suddenly realized that I had no tangible answer. So I began with Webster, but his definition didn’t seem to fit completely:

  1. spiritual character, quality, or nature
  2. the rights, jurisdiction, tithes, etc. belonging to the church or to an ecclesiastic
  3. the fact or state of being incorporeal

The word "church" excluded me, a Jew. Did it imply that, without access to mainstream forms of Gentile religion, spirituality is inaccessible to me?

But every search is germane in origin and profound in truth. Beside my heavy red dictionary, I found loose pages from a class taught by my rabbi's wife on the Fundamentals of Faith. Next to those notes and source sheets stood a collection of poems by a favorite teacher of mine, an Iowa farmer. Each poem is about a tree and a letter of the alphabet.

Spirituality can be like a treeMy favorite is Birch. As a little girl, I spent summers at a camp in northern Wisconsin called Birch Trail. There, tall birches arched to the sky, making my walks along dirt paths inspiring and filled with the music of leaves brushing in the wind. I am all too familiar with the fragility of birch trees. Our counselors taught us that if we peeled back the thin white paper-like bark of the birch, we would end its life. The power was in our hands.

In the poem, the author plants a birch on the edge of his farm in Iowa, which is so far south it is believed to be an unkind home for these trees. The heat won't nurture them. With each of his four children, the author planted a tree of their choice and helped them care for the sapling until it was healthy and strong and old. When his daughter chooses a birch, he wonders at the wisdom of her choice. Parents do this – we wonder at the wisdom of our children's choices. Some of us let them go along their paths as they wish, biting our tongues and watching as they flounder, fall and pick themselves up again. Others of us, maybe the same ones who let them go free, hold them back, override their choices, step in and take charge. Parenting teases us into believing we have control.

So what does this have to do with spirituality?

The poem reads, "We've had it/with fear forever/gnawing away at us./We're tired of/hate and greed and ambition,/of always doing the right thing./It is going to die/like we are/when our bark peels/into paper strips,/when the weather changes/enough to let us in/on whatever eternity/we've been missing."

It is so beautiful the way he describes this planting, how he and his daughter drop the "raw bundle of nerves" into a "grave of mud." He says, "We bury what/we think is beautiful/deep into the ground/we love. We will/watch as it rises/from these ashes, no matter what/the experts say" and the poem goes on and on and is so beautiful I could recount the whole thing right here but I won't.

Spirituality can be like a tree, you know. In August, the fruit is abundant. Here in Michigan, we enter the time of apple-picking, so close is it to Rosh Hashanah, and I notice the metaphor. All summer, we have picked fruit from the ground, so full in their green bloom, the green, green leaves seeming to reflect the endlessness of the sky. The beauty is so overwhelming, sometimes I feel like there is no better place to be than in a grove of trees.

We slipped the money - $1.20 per pound! – into a locked gray boxLast week, my husband Avy and I took our family on vacation to the west side of the state. There, we stumbled upon The Blueberry Patch, a little grove of bushes surrounded by tall, old, swaying trees. All day, people grabbed white plastic buckets and plucked berries from the bushes, always buying some previously picked fruit at the farmer's stand. After 6 PM, they had "after-hours blueberry picking." We parked the car, didn't lock the doors, grabbed our buckets from a stack and strolled up and down the thick cover of bushes. When we finished, we weighed the bounty on a beautiful, old, heavy metal scale on the counter, a real antique. I taught my son Asher how to read the weight. Then, we slipped the money - $1.20 per pound! – into a locked gray box, honoring their trust in the unseen. No one supervised our efforts, no one would catch us if we left without paying.

Spirituality is like that.

In summer, the trees are in full bloom. There is a certain safety standing in the midst of blooming trees, the only sound their branches waving high above. It is like the bounce of mikvah waters or the peace of Neilah prayers, the concluding prayers on Yom Kippur. Like the full weight of a congregation in mid-prayer, so many eyes closed, so many bodies swaying side to side.

Summer gives way to Fall and the trees turn into striking shades of color. I love Fall. Against this colorful background, we contemplate our existence, the meaning of our lives, in the cycle of the holidays that await us: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah. On Rosh Hashanah, we dip apple slices in honey and I think of the roundness of the apple, the way the cycles of the year circle back. The honey is the sweetness of a new year dawning, a year of possibility, an opportunity to recast the net of our lives and find new meaning.

As Jews, we celebrate so passionately, we mourn so deeply, everything we do is rich with emotion and contemplation and reverence. Or at least, it should be, right?

We head into Yom Kippur with silence, fear, and awe, and come out of it renewed hopefully, refreshed perhaps, and head full-force, with so much energy, into Sukkot, which is one of my favorites. On Sukkot, we bare ourselves to the elements and to G‑d's oversight – which we do in many ways all the time, but on Sukkot it is a physically vulnerable, trusting endeavor. We are out under the stars, fragile and trusting. The trees are like that too, sending their leaves silently to the ground. (I cringe at the thought of having to rake them up before the snow, of course!). Finally, our holidays end and the trees will be bare stalks searing toward the sky and we will be able to see everything for miles around. A barren view.

We wonder if that fullness will ever returnA tree in winter is stark against the sky. Where I live, we wonder if that fullness will ever return. There are barren moments, sometimes more than others, and in those dark times we wonder whether we will once again rediscover the fullness and the delight.

Spirituality is like that.

Yet with trees, we know what to expect. They will lose their leaves and be bare and cold but in just a few months they will once again sprout new growth and bloom. We cannot always trust that our spirituality will do that. It is not constant, there is no expectation, no automatic cycles. We must work at keeping the bloom.

Next to the book of tree poems and the notes from my rebbetzin's class is a book I bought so long ago, during my secular twenty-something, post-college search for meaning. The pages have yellowed. There is a line that reminds me of our tradition too: "Things just happen in the right way, at the right time. At least they do when you let them, when you work with circumstances instead of saying, 'This isn't supposed to be happening this way,' and trying hard to make it happen some other way." Next to that book is another book of poetry. I picture its author sitting there, tilting her head to the sky, raising her hands, palms open, in question. I don't think she has an answer, as none of us do, but at least she asks a question.

We are entering Elul, a month perfect for questions. It is a month of delving and learning and thinking and preparing. It is more than a month of baking ahead to put things in the freezer so you're not overwhelmed when the holidays hit. It is a spiritual month as much as it is a month of running around, buying new shoes for the kids and little ties that clip onto their button-down shirts and perfect ponytails to match their dresses. It is more than making a guest list and figuring out what to serve or ordering fish, ground fine, for my grandmother's recipe, or roasting brisket for five hours so the house smells as if the tomato paste has seeped into every corner. It is all of those things. But it is more.

In my office, these are but a few of the many books with varied titles and texts that stand resolute on the shelves. This is my metaphor for the month of Elul and the holidays that follow. I run my fingers over books about rhyming and quotations and a thesaurus and the official Nikon camera manual for the antique Nikkorex F model, the book and camera gifts from my father, and two dictionaries, as if one is not enough.

In-between all of these is an adolescent novel, a story about a black boy during the Depression, an orphan, who wanders alone at the age of eleven, carrying a big suitcase with a picture of his mother and some old clothes. Eventually he meets his grandfather. At the end of the book, he lets go of the picture, so convinced is he that memories, not one photograph, will forever connect him to his mother.

This, too, is spirituality.

I realize that my stalling is actually the answerI tell you all this because I am trying to stall in answering my question. What is spirituality? And then I realize that my stalling is actually the answer – I have no idea what spirituality is and yet if I just look around me, I see it in everything my eyes confront: books of poetry, studious tomes, dictionaries, the even, stained grain on the thin planks of my wood floor.

Spirituality is that something you can't put your finger on but cannot live without. It is the passion that pairs with the necessary precision of religion which can stand alone but will likely falter if it does. It is the lack of certainty but the warm belief of reassurance. It is something unnamable that smells strikingly familiar, like the loaves of challah in my oven signaling that Shabbat is coming. It is the walk I took under the heady scent of pine needles and the fragrant ticking of insects to get to the discussion about spirituality and it is the surprise in being alone, that a stack of magazines is not enough to combat the loneliness of silence. It is the silence itself, which can be daunting and fearful and full of joy, whichever you choose.

For this definition of spirituality, let me turn to our own sources, poetry at its finest. In this excerpt, Elijah experiences G‑d's presence on the mountain. He first hears tremendous sounds, but that is not where he finds G‑d's presence. Rather, he is engulfed by an impossible silence and only thereafter, does he hear G‑d's voice.

"And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the L-rd. And, behold, the L-rd passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the L-rd; but the L-rd was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the L-rd was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the L-rd was not in the fire: after the fire a still small voice.

And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave…"
(I Kings XIX: 11-13)

For me, spirituality, trite as it may be, rests in three things: in shalom, peace; in sitting down for Shabbat at the table over warm bread, with wine and blessings; and in the wisdom of silence - that prayer that comes without identifiable words but which forces us, in our barest moments, to think, or not, about what fills the void.

This month of Elul, this season of all-important eye-opening holidays, I wish for all of us that we find inspiration, that we pay attention to the words, that we keep our eyes open. Teshuvah, a goal of this season, is defined as turning around, becoming better, returning. May we all become better and by the time we approach the Throne of the King on Rosh Hashanah, may we understand why our spirituality is sometimes fleeting and know how to get it back, fuller, richer, always in bloom.