How Small Stuff Can Set Big Examples
A funny moment reminded me how anyone’s small behaviors can affect others in big ways.
A synagogue invited me and a colleague for a weekend teaching spirituality. As guests invited to explore “spiritual Judaism,” we expected some to view us as what Jack Bloom called “symbolic exemplars” – people observed carefully (consciously or not) to show how to be (or not be) in the world.
Clergy can be symbolic exemplars, and so too parents, mentors, doctors, politicians, movie stars, pop idols – and maybe you yourself. Symbolic exemplars are people onto whom we project (or who themselves project) social and moral authority. As today’s news depicts with stunning clarity, some symbolic exemplars are fitting; others less so. Some walk the walk rather than just talk the talk; others not so much. Some hold their influential roles gently and humbly; others the opposite.
I was about to co-lead a Shabbat service. As is my custom, I donned a tallit (prayer shawl) that to me symbolizes light enrobing divinity (Psalm 104:2), by whose light we ourselves see light (Psalm 36:10). To me, the holy is the ultimate symbolic exemplar.
Many people watched me don my tallit, as a symbolic exemplar of “how to” don a tallit “spiritually.” They saw me raise my tallit over my head, wrap it around myself, turn to a wall and stretch my arms over my head against the wall, my tallit sweeping through the air.
It must’ve been quite a sight, because four people – who didn’t yet know me – then asked about my “spiritual” way of donning a tallit. “I’ve never seen anyone wear a tallit so spiritually,” one said with wonder in her voice. “Please teach me about it, and especially why you lean against a wall. Is it to symbolize the Western Wall?”
I admired the explanation’s creativity, but the truth is that I leaned against a wall only to stretch my back! I hadn’t intended anything “spiritual” much less to teach anything by it, but no matter: people watch and learn anyway. And I bet the four people who asked me their question didn’t intend to be my teachers, but no matter: I watched and learned anyway.
That’s how spiritual life is. We all watch. We all teach and we all learn (sometimes by negative example). There’s no encounter lacking in spiritual potential. There’s nobody who can’t be a symbolic exemplar.
Our tallit encounter invited a good laugh that opened hearts and minds in new ways. I offered my tallit tradition of visualizing light and sending light where I feel it’s needed – and then we chuckled about the wall thing. Hopefully they saw that spirit’s ways needn’t be stodgy or super-human.
They reminded me that everything (even a tight back and wall stretch) and everyone (whomever they feel themselves to be) can be a portal for dialogue, laughter and learning. Isn’t that some of what we all want “spirituality” to be?
Dedicated to the Temple Bnai Chaim family of Georgetown, CT, with gratitude for our weekend together filled with joy, learning, spirit and laughter.
Originally published at My Jewish Learning / Rabbis Without Borders.