A spiritual key. What do I mean? A key is a kind of musical mood. It brings forward a tune with a particular feeling.
Human life is a roller-coaster of moods. Our experiences bring forward particular emotions. Particular keys of feeling, if you will. And spiritual traditions help us live into them.
Spiritual Key of Joy
Take joy, for example, Let’s say you’re 18 years old. And you just finished high school. But you’re sure you failed your last science exam. And then your transcript from the Vancouver School Board arrives in the mail. And you passed by one point and you are now a high school graduate!! Yes! The universe is looking out for you! Fate was on your side because it could have gone either way!!! Maybe there really is a God!
Or. A more adult example. Let’s say it’s been five years since your last cancer treatment. It’s time to find out if you are officially cancer-free. You go to the lab, and they do their thing and send the results to your doctor. And then…the call comes in. You are cancer free! Yes! And you know that God doesn’t favour anyone over anyone else. And that God looks out for everyone equally. But still! Today you feel seen and loved and well-taken care of.
Psalm 100, for example, is the perfect Psalm for these moments of jubilation. It tells us how to pray into that feeling: with praise!
Confession and Petition: Each a Spiritual Key
But you know our emotions aren’t always jubilant. So we need other spiritual keys, too.
Because sometimes you don’t succeed on the school exam. You feel so disappointed—in yourself. And then you have to ask yourself hard questions. What did I do right to learn the 49%? Where did I go wrong with the other 51%? How can I learn how to learn? We have a spiritual key for this: confession.
And sometimes your health report isn’t as good as you had hoped. You might be facing another round of treatment. You’re anxious about the outcome, but confident you know how to cope. So you take stock of your resources. Which friends can help with rides and food and childcare? Who will pray for you? So, you count your blessings in a spiritual key of gratitude. And you pray for healing, in a spiritual key of petition.
Prayer helps us live with our emotions. It places each emotion in a spiritual frame. And gives us guidelines for working within the frame. This is the whole point of the traditional Jewish morning liturgy. It walks us through gratitude, praise, confession, and petition—in that order.
But, honestly, the morning service goes by so fast. It’s only an hour long on a weekday. Just as you dip into an important feeling and start to pray about it, you’re on to the next one. There isn’t really enough time to do the spiritual work.
Jewish Holidays: A Tour of Spiritual Keys
But maybe that’s why we have so many Jewish holidays. So that we can take a deeper dive into all kinds of feelings. And have a little bit more time to learn how to do spiritual work with those feelings.
You probably know that the Jewish year has 12 months. But you might not know that 11 of those months have major holidays! Yes, it’s exhausting!
Each holiday explores a different spiritual key. I’ll just tell you about a few. We celebrate our New Year for ten days in the early fall. These ten days begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. So for ten days, we explore confession. We review our lives, evaluate ourselves, ask forgiveness from our friends, and pray for a new start.
And—liturgically speaking—we get our wish right away. Only one week later we celebrate Sukkot, the seven-day feast of booths. The Bible calls it “the time of our joy.” If we can, we build a little hut on our terrace, or porch or deck. And, for seven exhausting days, we party in the hut whenever we’re not working. For seven days, we live into jubilation and praise.
In midsummer, we observe three weeks of lament, leading up to the holiday of Tisha B’Av. Officially, the time commemorates the destruction of our first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But, in practice, for these three weeks, we remember all the sorrows of our ancestors. We study the Biblical book of Lamentations. We fast and cry and sing songs of heartbreak. This, too, is a spiritual key: bringing your broken heart to God.
Internalizing the Spiritual Lessons
Is anyone inner’s life ever perfectly in sync with the holidays? No. Of course not. Sometimes, our lives contrast with the holiday messages. But we learn from that, as well. To see our own selves and our spiritual needs more clearly. And to empathize with others, who have different spiritual needs.
In a way, the whole Jewish liturgical year is a training in transformative spiritual practice. We learn how to work with our emotions in partnership with the divine. I do not make any claims about how much—or how little—any particular practicing Jew has learned. Just that our traditional calendar give us so many resources.
Maybe that is why the medieval Jewish poet Judah Halevi (1075–1141) said, those who serve only mundane goals can never be free. But those who live in sacred time—they learn to be truly free.
Originally presented as a sermon at Gilmore Park United Church, June 11, 2023.