Our relationship with Judaism often goes through seasons. Sometimes it’s summer, with clear skies and the sun shining; we feel fired up about our Judaism and close to God. Then there are winters, cold, cloudy periods; we feel filled with doubts and distant from God. When you experience a cold season, realize it’s normal and just a reflection of your feeling of distance from God, not God’s distance from you or Judaism’s objective value. God is always close to you and Judaism will always be our people’s lifeline and source of meaning in our lives.
Even righteous people experience spiritual winters. They know it’s part of the journey and do not live their lives based on how they feel in the moment. They live based on their convictions, what they know to be true. As the prophet Habakkuk taught (Habakkuk 2:4), “...The righteous shall live by his faith.” They are not guided by passing feelings toward Judaism. They are guided by their faith in God and in the truth of His Torah. They hold on tightly to this faith and keep moving forward, even during tumultuous times. Because they do not give up, they are able to move through cloudy, stormy periods to states of clarity and connection to God.
Our relationship with God cannot be based on passing moods; that would be serving ourselves, not God. To truly serve our Creator, our relationship with Him must be unconditional. As our Creator, our relationship with God is embedded in our very DNA and can never be severed.
The periods that test our loyalty to God serve to strengthen our bond with Him. We cannot forge a truly deep relationship with God unless we work hard to develop it. To earn the bliss of an unbreakable bond with God, both in this world and even more so in the World to Come, that bond needs to be tested. Instead of fleeing at the first sign of a spiritual chill, expect those periods and use them as an opportunity to demonstrate that your relationship with God is unconditional. Come what may, you are sticking with God and will do your best to fulfill His will.
During a spiritual winter two approaches can help reignite our passion for God and Judaism. First, remove impediments which smother our inner fire, the soul’s innate yearning for its Creator. Second, do things which stoke the flame within. Ultimately, a passionate feeling of connection to God is a gift from Him; we cannot force it to happen. But we must do our part. To start, pick at least one item from each of the two categories below. Do your best and ask God for help.
1. Reign in distracting behavior. If you spend too much time on distracting behavior, e.g., excessive smartphone or internet use, even over-working, you will not have time to deepen your relationship with God. Every relationship needs attention to develop. Distracting and addictive behavior robs us of the focus we need to build a relationship with God. Praying with intention, studying Torah, and speaking to God takes time. Are you putting in the time? If you are distracted, you will not hear the voice of your soul yearning for God. Ask, “Which behavior am I engaging in that’s distracting me from focusing on the important things in life? How can I reign in that behavior and make better use of my time?” For more on this topic, see, “Overcoming Our Soft Addictions.”
2. Enhance your moral purity. Moral purity exists on a spectrum, the more we guard our moral purity, the more room we make for God’s presence in our lives. If a person’s mind is filled with sinful thoughts, that is going to chase away holiness from their life. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov spoke about this often. Moral impurity dulls the natural pull we feel to our Creator. The more we purify ourselves the stronger our yearning will be for God, to learn His Torah and speak to Him in prayer. To enhance your purity, remind yourself of God’s presence which surrounds you always. Fill your mind with elevated thoughts and have safeguards to keep you away from impurity. When you lapse, recite Rebbe Nachman’s Tikkun Haklali (Psalms: 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150), put in stronger safeguards and begin again with a fresh start. For some, committing to short periods of moral purity, such as a week or month at a time, can be a helpful tool to transform ourselves into the type of person who refuses to be sullied by sinful behavior. Ask, “What can I do to strengthen my moral purity?” For more on this topic, see, “4 Ways to Safeguard Your Moral Purity.”
3. Avoid cynical people. Were you ever passionate about something, until you spoke to a cynic who drained you of all enthusiasm? Avoid people who make light of serious topics, especially those relating to spirituality. When they cannot be avoided, steer the conversation to light subjects, where cynicism is less damaging. Whenever possible, surround yourself with people who are a good influence. Ask, “How can I distance myself from those who spiritually bring me down? Who are positive people I can spend time with? Is there a Torah class in my neighborhood where I can meet like minded people?”
4. Strengthen your observances. When a person feels connected with God, they can often sense that doing the mitzvot strengthens that connection and sin weakens it. This creates a feedback loop where the more connected you feel to God the more you want to do mitzvot and avoid sin, which thereby increases your closeness to God. The reverse is also true. Each sin a person does cools off even more their passion for Judaism which can lead to further sin, creating a downward spiral. Unless one strengthens oneself, what began as a slight slip can lead to a massive spiritual decline. To protect yourself, as soon as you experience a small slip, quickly catch yourself from stumbling further and straighten up, which can be as easy as committing to stronger safeguards or to do your best to avoid that mistake in the future and begin again with a fresh start. Ask, “In which area of my Judaism have my observances weakened? What commitment do I make to strengthen that area?” For more on this topic, see, “How to Strengthen Your Commitment to Judaism.”
5. Treat others well. Mistreating God’s other children will weaken your relationship with your Father in Heaven. Do not gossip, say hurtful things, cause financial harm or withhold monies due. To enhance your relationship with God, treat His children well. Ask, “Is there anyone who I have not treated appropriately? When will I contact them to apologize?”
6. Enhance your mood and energy levels. If you generally feel apathetic and unmotivated, you will likely feel the same about your Judaism. Try strategies to enhance your mood and overall energy. Begin by getting more sleep, exercising (in sunlight when possible) and eating a healthy diet. Ask, “Am I generally upbeat and energetic or lethargic and in a low mood?” What can I do to enhance my mood and energy levels?” For more on this topic, see, “The FAR Plan: Three Steps to Emotional Health.”
Stoking the flame:
1. Listen to uplifting Jewish music. A heartfelt, stirring melody can often help us shift from feeling spiritually cold to hot and inspired. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught the importance of dancing and clapping. Daily, or at least on a regular basis, put on uplifting Jewish music and dance and clap to the music. (If possible, learn the meaning of the words to the Hebrew songs). This can help you break out of a stagnant, disconnected state and enhance your mood. Ask, “Whose music do I find uplifting or who can I ask for a recommendation?”
2. Study Torah. Preferably daily, study Torah that inspires you. Many find Chassidic thought especially inspiring. One inspiring work which details practical teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is A Bit More Advice available at https://breslov.org. (Currently, the site has a free App and offers a free e-book on Rebbe Nachman if you sign up for their newsletter.) In addition, set up at least a weekly study session, preferably with someone who is passionate about Judaism. One of the benefits of studying with a partner is that we are often able to put more effort and toil into studying with someone than studying alone. Toiling in Torah study elevates us and increases our feeling of connection to God. Ask, “What book or class will I try, or who will I ask about setting up a study partner?”
3. Find an inspirational rabbi or rebbetzin. Find a role model who is passionate about Judaism to inspire, advise and encourage you. How do you know when you have found the right mentor for you? When you notice that your relationship with them is having a positive impact on you. Think of possible role models who live nearby or with whom you have crossed paths and stay in touch with them. Call or speak with them regularly, perhaps monthly, to maintain a connection. Reading a biography of one of our righteous men or women is another great way to get inspired. Ask, “Who is someone who may be a good spiritual mentor for me? When will I reach out to them to develop a relationship? Which biography of an inspirational role model will I buy or borrow?”
4. Tune into God’s presence. God is with us throughout our lives, whether we feel His presence or not. During the day, bring to mind that God’s glory fills the world – His presence is in every cell and atom. Realize you are standing before God at all times. Shift your awareness, from inward – centered on your thoughts – to outward, tuning in to God’s presence which surrounds you always. The more you think about God, the more you will see His guiding hand in your life and feel connected to Him. Every time we say a prayer or a blessing over food is an opportunity to tune into God’s presence. Throughout the day, think about God and ask Him to help you do His will.
5. Pray. Prayer is a key source of spiritual vitality. We pray three times a day so even just slightly improving our prayers, perhaps focusing on one prayer to say with greater intention, will have a big impact. In addition to the daily prayers, aim to recite Psalms daily (glancing at a translation to understand the words). Also speak to God informally, in your native language. Thank Him for the blessings in your life and the times you felt His guiding hand. Tell Him about your challenges and plead with God to bring you closer to Him. When possible, visit Israel, praying and studying Torah there; it is easier to feel a connection to God while in His Holy Land. Ask, “What can I do to say my prayers with greater concentration? Am I willing to recite a portion of Psalms daily? Am I willing to try speaking to God informally in my native language?” For more on this topic, see, “How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Prayer.”
6. Get out of your comfort zone. Think about your current spiritual level in terms of prayer, Torah study and doing acts of kindness. Now pick one of those areas and at the next opportunity, push yourself to go beyond what you usually do; pray with greater intensity, study with increased focus, extend yourself even more on behalf of another. These short bursts of intense spiritual exertion will help you break free from a spiritual winter and add more warmth and fire to your spirituality. Ask, “In what way will I increase my exertion to reach a higher level of prayer, Torah study or act of kindness?”
Some of us have felt periods of inspiration in our lives, others not yet. The above strategies can help both groups, but if you have felt inspired in the past, try to reconnect with that feeling. Recall a time when you felt inspired or close to God. What were you doing and thinking about at the time? How did it feel? Can you feel now some of that elevated feeling of Divine connection?
Whether or not you were able to recapture some of that feeling now, know that the possibility of a deep feeling of closeness to God exists every day of your life, because God is with you every day of your life. Do your part to cultivate and deepen your relationship with your Creator and wait patiently for Him to gift you that feeling of closeness.
Deepening our connection with God takes time. Be prepared for challenges and setbacks along the way. Keep moving forward even when you feel uninspired and distant from Him. As best you can, avoid that which weakens your relationship with Him and do that which strengthens it. The tenacious efforts you put into coming closer to God will propel you to higher levels of connection to Him. With perseverance, at the right time, God will awaken within you a passion for Judaism and a burning desire for even greater closeness to Him.