Practice, practice, practice 

Practice, practice, practice 

Tending the spiritual fire within us and the world around us

Associate Rabbi & Music Director, Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck, Conservative

My mother practices cello at least two hours a day. I recently asked her why she practices so much. She answered that two hours is what she feels she needs just to maintain her current level of proficiency. This reminded me of the old joke about Carnegie Hall. As the story goes, the violinist Mischa Elman was walking from Carnegie Hall toward his hotel following a rehearsal. He wasn’t happy with his playing and had his head down. Two tourists who saw his violin case asked him: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without looking up, he replied, “practice, practice, practice.”

Not unlike the Carnegie Hall joke, this week’s Torah portion teaches us that regular practice is critical for our spiritual (and ethical) lives. Five verses into Parashat Tzav, we read: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, it shall not go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it every morning… Fire shall be kept burning tamid (regularly) on the altar; it shall not go out.” But how do we keep the fire alive today, without the mizbei’ach, without the altar and the centralized Temple?

The chasidic master Elimelekh of Lizhensk teaches that this fire is the holiness and the Divine light within each of us. In his Torah commentary, the Noam Elimelekh, he comments on the word tamid, which means “continually,” emphasizing that we each have an obligation not only to keep the fire, the light, and the holiness within us alive, but also to regularly add holiness to our lives, stoking the spiritual fire within. How do we do this? We practice.

If you took piano lessons in elementary school like I did, then you can probably attest to the fact that practice doesn’t always feel good or enjoyable. But it sets us up both to reach unique heights and to cope with painful lows. Even simple and accessible spiritual disciplines, such as mindfulness meditation, take practice. In an interview with the website PsyCom, one of my Jewish meditation teachers, Yael Shy, said the following: “To reap the full benefits of meditation it’s vital to establish a regular, daily time to meditate. …if you don’t exercise, you’ll probably get by in life; but if you do exercise [often], your body will be more limber and healthy, and you’ll feel better on a regular basis. The same goes for meditation. You establish a pattern that allows your mind and heart to be healthy on a more regular basis.”

When you make the time to support a practice, eventually, the practice supports you. I’m not an athlete, but I’ve been told that serious runners feel pretty good once they’ve hit that fifth or sixth mile. Our tradition affirms the idea that our exertion in the short term will help us feel not only good but supported and lifted up in the long term. The Talmud (Sotah 35a) teaches that when the Israelites reached the Jordan River, those who had been carrying the Ark of the Covenant were lifted and carried across the river by the Ark itself. In other words, if you bear the sometimes heavy weight of regular spiritual practice, you will be lifted up and carried by your practice in times of need.

There is a tension here, between hitlahavut and hergeil — passion and routine. Routine is, by definition, predictable and potentially tedious. I will admit that I struggle with this. For example, when I attend daily minyan, morning and evening, I don’t always have a powerful experience.

But I try to remember, as this week’s parashah teaches us, that we need routine in order to increase our passion; like the kohein, we need to add fuel to the fire. That eish, that fire within, can flare up on its own and inspire us on rare and sometimes unpredictable occasions. We need that passion in order for our spiritual practices to be meaningful. But we also need to tend to that eish — tamid. We need to stoke the fire regularly. If we engage in regular, daily spiritual practice, then we can experience those spiritual heights more frequently. But we will only be carried by our practice as much as we carry it.

And we will only carry it if we feel a commitment and an obligation to do so. Cultivating a sense of obligation in spiritual practice also helps us strengthen our sense of responsibility in the ethical realm. Feeling that we’re not responsible for anything but ourselves can lead to selfishness, while feeling that we have obligations to something beyond ourselves leads to empathy and kindness.

That is the purpose of mitzvot. As the chasidic masters taught, mitzvot, which we often refer to as “commandments,” are opportunities for tzavvta, connection with each other and with the Divine. That’s what Parashat Tzav, the portion of connection, teaches us.

The commandment of lo tikhbeh — don’t let the fire go out — is an unusual mitzvah. It’s a negative commandment that actually requires attention and action. So if the essence of the commandment is active, why is it phrased in the negative?

To teach us that the divine fire is already there within us, always burning. We don’t need to create the fire. But we do need to keep it alive through spiritual practice, embracing all kinds of mitzvot, both those that we find easy and joyful and those that we experience as challenging but obligatory.

This is what we take upon ourselves in cultivating and nourishing our fire, tamid — daily. We commit to the ethical work of practicing rituals that connect us to something larger than ourselves. We commit to making our lives holy and the world more whole.

All it takes is practice.

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