We very often hear about people who are longing for a spiritual connection and, in their quests, travel far and wide and often to extreme ends to achieve their goals. Whether it be to the Himalayan mountains with backpack in tow, or some mountain ridge deep in the heart of Peru, their hearts ache as they search, trying to grasp for what often feels just beyond reach. They are thirsting for that spiritual peak. At times, they do feel as if they “achieved the goal” or “this is working.”
If they are actually reaching that spiritual high they were seeking, is there something wrong? Can there be a wrong spirituality? Is it possible for spirituality to be unholy?
For an answer, we look to the story of Bilaam. He was a prophet – a rather unholy one. He tried to curse the Jewish people, to give their enemies the upper hand. He was a greedy, self-serving person, after his own fame and riches. He definitely reached into the lofty spheres of spirituality, tinkering there to try to bring negativity into the world, but we would have to agree that there was nothing holy about it.
This week’s Torah portion starts off with the story of the death of Nadav and Avihu, with the words, “And God spoke to Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near to God and they died.” The obvious question is why does the Torah add the words “and they died” if it just said “after the death of the two sons of Aaron”?
The midrash, in trying to understand their deaths, explains that they sinned and therefore were killed. This brings us to the next obvious question, what sin did they commit? And why then, earlier in the Torah when speaking of their deaths, did Moses say to Aaron, as explained by Rashi, “Aaron, my brother! I knew that this House was to be sanctified through ones that are beloved to God, but I thought it would be either through me or through you. Now I see that Nadav and Avihu were greater than me or you!” Which one was it? Did they sin or were they greater than Moses and Aaron?
There are chasidic sources that explain that their sin was not a literal one, but rather, a spiritual one. They sought to connect to God on a spiritual level alone, without involving the physical world around them. Then once that connection grew too strong, their bodies could no longer handle it. Their souls departed their bodies and they died, as the Torah states, “when they drew near to God and they died.” This was considered a sin, because even though a person has to grow spiritually, it has to be in a way of holiness – the way God told us to act.
As we see in the second Torah portion of this week, it says, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” When we learn the things God mentions that would make us holy we see that He mentions many spiritual things like the laws of the Temple and of the land of Israel. However, we also see other more mundane laws such as “you shall not fully reap the corner of your field” or “you shall not lie.” For true holiness is not just “spiritual growth,” it is also taking the world around us on that journey.
Everything in the Torah has a practical application for all of us. The lesson to us here is that if while praying or learning we feel closer to God but our “drawing close to God” has left no impression afterward, we will have made the same mistake as Nadav and Avihu. The way to imbue holiness into our daily lives is not to leave God in shul and visit when we seek spirituality. Spirituality is not a goal unto itself. Spirituality is striving to permeate even our most simple activities with holiness. When the food we eat is kosher and we recite a blessing before we consume it, we have elevated the act of eating and brought holiness to our dinner table.
We must take everything around us and reveal its potential for holiness, such as our food or the computer I sit at now. The true translation of the word kadosh is “separated” – and that is our goal. Separating the holiness from within every physical thing in this world.