As the High Holidays approach, we start to sense an air of spirituality around us. It might be in our Shuls, our schools, and hopefully our homes. But oftentimes our concept of “spirituality” is somewhat misleading. When we think of spiritual-ness, we tend to think of ecstasy, “other-worldliness”, transcendence, and other types of dissociation from the physical in order to connect to G-d. And while there’s certainly a focus on that in this time, especially on Yom Kippur, it may actually blind us from the mission of this season’s important introspection.
The verse in this week’s Parsha says, “G-d will establish you as a holy nation, as He swore to you, because you kept the commandments of G-d, your Lord, and you walked in His ways” (28:9). While thematically, the terms holiness and commandments always go hand in hand, the mechanics that bring them together here are somewhat peculiar. We usually view mitzvot as the embodiment of holiness- when we do them, we are holy, automatically and by definition. Yet this verse sounds as if Hashem will make us holy AFTER we do the mitzvot. How does that work? Is that to say that mitzvot are not holy acts, but simply rewarded with holiness post-facto?
The Netziv explains that the verse is referring to our feeling of holiness. Of course, mitzvot are holy acts, but they don’t always feel that way. Slaughtering an animal, visiting the sick, asking forgiveness of a friend are certainly noble activities, but do they feel holy? Prayer feels holy, studying Torah feels holy, Shabbat candles and tefillin feel holy. The Netziv explains that G-d guarantees us, that despite the lack of “spirituality” in the moment, Hashem is still making you holy. You will feel, afterwards, like a holier person. Sometimes, in order to engage with “spirituality”, we have to disengage first and fulfill our responsibilities, no matter how they feel.
As we enter into the days of Selichot, repentance, and introspection, let us not be carried away in thinking that the charge of the High Holy days is to cultivate a constant feeling of spiritual ecstasy, and that if we don’t find it then we’ve failed. The High Holidays are about returning to a state of holiness through the fulfillment of mitzvot. If we perform them properly, we will be holy, even if you don’t feel a euphoric transcendence. Hashem’s Torah is for our physical activities to be fulfilled in the physical world- they’re allowed to feel physical. We should feel comfortable fulfilling that mission, and being secure that our holiness is guaranteed by the One for whom we’re doing it. Becoming a spiritually-engaged person is an admirable level of achievement, but let that not dissuade us from becoming the most noble physical fulfill-er we can be.