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Home » Israel, Science, Sh'lach L'chah

Shlach: Boots On The Ground

Submitted by on June 9, 2014 – 1:37 amNo Comment | 6,349 views


I’m often asked how to make ritual exciting. It’s sad, but true that many Jewish children are raised with a ritualistic form of Judaism that lacks spirit and it is difficult for them to be inspired by meaningless rituals that feel repetitive and redundant. My answer is always the same. Ritual is the key to G-dly living. Spirituality and meditation are exciting, but there is nothing as real as boots on the ground.


Here is what I mean. For millennia, wars were fought by two armies that closed ranks on the battlefield. The stronger and larger army usually won. In the modern age there is a whole new way to wage war. We have gone from boots on the ground to areal and naval warfare. Wars are prosecuted from such a distance that those with their finger on the trigger never see the enemy they destroy.

Today we have graduated to even fancier forms of warfare; electronic and cyber. You don’t even have to cross a nation’s boundaries to bring it to its knees. Yet, you cannot win your battle and vanquish your enemy unless you put boots on the ground. The electronic gadgets, explosive charges and long distance rockets are fancy ways to intimidate. Cyber warfare and economic embargoes are sophisticated ways to wound, but you cannot win a war unless you put boots on the ground.

If you fought today as they fought centuries ago, with only boots on the ground, you would quickly lose your war as we learned the Maginot line. The world has moved on and war is prosecuted in new ways. But if you pursued your enemy only with fancy gadgets and cyber weaponry, you are also guaranteed to lose. The only way to win, is to marry modern sophistication to ancient art. Put boots on the ground, but fortify, buttress and support them with the entire array of sophisticated weaponry.


Living a life of dedicated spirituality is exciting to many. The mountains of Tibet are dotted with temples where, divorced from the distractions of reality, worshippers devote themselves to meditation, serenity and the spiritual pursuit.

The other side of this coin is organized religion. There are millions across the world that live in large metropolises, but rely on organized religion for stability and direction. The rituals ground them, the sanctuaries uplift them and the traditions revive them. Yet, this form of ecclesiastic worship has fallen out of favor in the modern age as people are left increasingly uninspired by dogma. There appears to be a voracious appetite for the spiritual and a profound disinterest in the ritual.

There is no question that it is deeply fulfilling to find spiritual wellness and emotional healing while probing life’s deepest meanings. It is much more fulfilling than living on the merry go round of life, working every day just to survive and live again.

But, as it is with war, so is it with spirituality. Just as you cannot replace boots on the ground with fancy gadgets, boots on the ground - innerstream.caso too is it not possible to replace ritual with meditation. And just as we need to marry fancy warfare to boots on the ground to win a war so must we marry spirit to ritual to find meaning.

If G-d intended for us to escape reality and adopt ascetic lifestyles, he wouldn’t have made us social creatures. We are by nature designed to blend, coalesce in large groups and form societies. Even when we escape the modern world to live off the grid, we form communities and social circles. They tend to be formed around ashrams or Temples, but they are social groupings nonetheless.

G-d wants us to live in the world even as we avoid being of the world. He wants us to be simultaneously engaged and divorced. He wants us to demonstrate that we can live holy G-dly lives while we reside in the hustle and bustle of a large unsheltered world. He wants us to demonstrate that we can live among caprice and avarice and remain honest and humble.

This is what I mean when I speak of boots on the ground. You can live a higher spiritual lifestyle when you are living in serenity, divorced from temptation and social challenge, but how do you know how you might respond when challenged? You can’t test your mettle unless you live in a trying environment.

Yet, it is true that dogma and ritual alone no longer suffice to fortify us spiritually against the challenges of the modern age. To succeed in today’s world, to transform the workplaces, social clubs and watering holes of the modern world into holy sanctuaries, where G-d is welcome, we must marry ritual and tradition with spirituality and meditation. When the ritual is an expression of our throbbing love for G-d, when our traditions are the outpouring of our spiritual connection to G-d, the intangible finds a real home in the concrete world and the ritual is given meaning. The ritual becomes spi-ritual.

This is how ritual becomes exciting. When eating Matzah and sounding the Shofar are merely physical actions they can grow redundant and meaningless. When they are expressions of our deep yearning for G-d and celebrations of our sincere gratitude, they are charged with meaning and vibrant excitement.

Ancient Dilemma

I have presented this as a modern age dilemma but in truth, there is nothing new under the sun. Everything that we debate today, was debated in the past and the solutions we chance upon today, were thought of before. We aren’t smarter than our predecessors. We just managed to forget what they already knew.

As they traveled through the desert, Jews were split into two camps. Everyone realized that the destination of their journey was Israel, but many Jews fell in love with the journey and didn’t want it to end. In the desert G-d had created a cocoon in which Jews were divorced from the real world. They lived an isolated lifestyle, devoted to Divine revelation, prophetic transmission, miraculous phenomena and intense Torah study. You can’t get more serene and ascetic than that.

When Moses shook things up by sending spies to Israel, many Jews responded with horror. You want us to give up this ideal for the real world? How can we maintain an unadulterated connection with G-d, while we irrigate land, dig ditches, build cities and fight wars? This isn’t a Jewish way of life.

Yet, Moses was firm in his response and explained that this was precisely the life Jews should live. Go to Israel and drain the swamps, make the deserts bloom and build a country, but do it G-d’s way, not your way. Do it in accordance with G-d’s instructions and according to His will. That is truly the Jewish way. Getting involved in nation building for yourself is the opposite of spirituality. But marrying the building of a Jewish land with the spirituality of G-d’s mandate, is the apex of spiritual pursuit.[1]


[1] This essay is based on Likutei Torah, Shlach, p. 38.

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