I always begin the discussion by asking a simple question: "What experiences have you encountered in life that you would describe as spiritual?" Often, I am surprised by the powerful answers I hear. Some describe imagined visits to other worlds. I have heard people talk with frightening intensity about losing someone they love. I have listened to people recall moments of joy, terror and wonder.
Take a moment, please, to think about your answer to the question. What experience or relationship have you had in life that you would describe as "spiritual"?
In all of the hundreds of answers I have heard to the question, I find one common element. The experiences we call spiritual are those in which we feel connected to something beyond ourselves. Whether it is the intensity of deeply and sincerely empathizing with another person, or the overwhelming realization of ones smallness in a vast universe, spiritual experiences are moments in which we reach beyond individuality and discover that we are inextricably linked to something beyond ourselves.
There is also this surprising fact: In all of the hundreds of answers I have heard to the question, there is one answer that is, by far, the most common. I find that about one in five people says that his or her most memorable spiritual experience is the experience of becoming a parent. It is, in fact, the answer that I would give myself.
There has been no other moment in my life that compares to holding that dear, tiny, new baby child—who is an echo of my own life—for the first time. In that moment, I feel intensely connected to all the generations that have preceded me and all that will follow. I am gazing into the eye of eternity and see myself to be part of it. It is a moment of shocking clarity and also of disquieting amazement—like being pulled, temporarily, out of the world to catch a glimpse of a deeper reality.
Does that sound crazy? Or is it, rather, a release from the ordinary insanity of our lives?
This week's Torah portion, Tazria, opens with one of the most baffling laws in the Torah. The law states that a woman is considered ritually impure (tamei, in Hebrew) for a set period of time after giving birth. During her impurity, she must not touch any holy object or enter into the holy place of God's house. For thirty-three days after giving birth to a son, or for sixty-six days after giving birth to a girl (!), the mother is kept apart from the things that "normal" (sane?) people consider sacred.
This law asks many questions; it offers few answers, if any. Why is a woman who may be at a peak spiritual moment considered unfit for the sacred? Why does the birth of a girl force a period of impurity that is twice as long?
It seems to me that there is something deeply frightening to the normal world about a woman who has just given birth. There is something about her that must be controlled. Boundaries have to be put in place to keep the contagion of danger from spreading. A fence is built around her.
As I ponder this, I consider that this is also how I sometimes think about my spiritual moments—the moments of feeling deeply connected. They, too, are a threat to so-called normal life. I sense that, if I were to linger too long in the place where I am inextricably linked to something beyond myself, I would be in danger of losing myself. It can feel wonderful to dive deeply into the ocean of intense spirituality, but before long, I have to come up from the depths to breathe the air of individuality, self, and boundaries that separate myself from others.
The woman who holds newborn eternity in her hands—who brings the future and the past together as they suckle at her breast—she represents the danger of living without the boundaries that separate conventional reality from the numinous. She defies the laws of differentiation by being two beings in one. Declaring her tamei is a declaration of our own limitations. We are not meant to live in the world of undifferentiated pure holiness.
For those thirty-three or sixty-six days, she is passing through the place without boundaries. It is the place where the distinctions between sacred and profane are obliterated. It cannot last for long, but while it does, what does it matter if she cannot enter the place that normal people deem holy? To her, in that moment of supreme connection, every place and everything is holy.