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Spirituals: An Introduction



The idea is simple; Just as someone should have an annual physical examination, they should have an annual spiritual examination.  The Spiritual should also be done by a specialist, what Maimonides calls a “Doctor of Souls1”.

People who want to maintain their physical health are sure to have themselves checked annually to make sure that they are healthy and that they are taking good care of themselves.  All too often we hear about someone young who had a heart attack or stroke, who hadn’t had a physical in a long time.  We wonder whether their premature deaths could have been prevented by early intervention.  Would a doctor have found a hint that something was wrong?  Would the doctor been able to help him?  There are even radio advertisements with two men talking about the early death of a mutual friend and committing themselves to having a check up a soon as possible.  “I want to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen to me,” is the usual refrain.

Obviously, the question is directed at someone who is interested in spiritual development and growth.  It is just as possible to have a spiritual heart attack as it is a physical one.  It is just as common, if not more so, to have a total spiritual collapse, moments, days or weeks of feeling lost and no sense of direction. 

It is possible to detect illnesses before they begin in one’s spiritual life as well.  A competent Doctor of Souls should be able to pick up hints of something wrong.  He should also be able to make suggestions how to prevent things from getting any worse.
A Spiritual helps you focus your goals and beliefs.  It gives you tangible exercises that provide the structure you need when your life when your life feels unstructured.  Even someone who is an Orthodox Jew, such as me, with all of its rules and structure will find that it easy to practice everything without any feelings at all.  The prophet Isaiah referred to that as “A commandment of men, learned by rote.”  Although such observance may be a sign of discipline it is not a sign of a healthy spiritual life.  It may not help in times of crisis.  A Spiritual would focus that person on those commandments that resonate within him and would teach him how to nurture his religious life.

There are those people who have found spirituality in a less structured religious life.  In fact, they rebel against the demands of organized religion.  They know what resonates and what doesn’t.  A Spiritual does something entirely different for them; it makes sure that they are growing and not simply practicing the same things year after year without doing anything other than making them feel good.  I have nothing against feeling good, but I wonder whether they are getting anywhere or not. 

Imagine someone who just completed a year of college and doesn’t know anything more than they did a year before.  Wouldn’t they wonder if they were wasting their time?  How would they feel if they felt the same way after four years of college.  We expect to know to gain some knowledge.  How would someone feel after a year of therapy knowing that they haven’t accomplished anything?  No new insights.  No change.  No growth.

Why should it be any different in our spiritual lives?  If I am the same person I was a year ago, if I haven’t changed or grown, won’t I feel that I am wasting my time?  That is why I encourage people to have an annual Spiritual just as they have an annual physical.  The Spiritual will help them determine if they have grown.  It will help them define what they have to work on, and how to work on those areas.

A Spiritual does more.  It helps you define what your strengths are and how to use them to overcome your weaknesses.  As you will see in the process of the spiritual you discover patterns of responses to different powerful experiences, and in exercises you may choose to help you confront your weak points.  Those patterns will help you define your plan for immediate action.  It will also help you realize how many strengths you have, identify them and learn how to use them to accomplish the goals that you set for yourself. 

1    פרק ב’ מהלכות דעות. הלכה א; ”ילכו אצל חכמים שהן רופאי הנפשות“, Hilchot De’ot, Chapter 1, Halachah 1; So too ,those whose souls are ill….should go to the sages ,who are doctors of the soul.

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