Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism and coauthor of three volumes of The Jewish Catalog and A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary. Referring to the Hasidic belief that all of life is infused with Divine meaning and holiness, he asserts that spiritual practice is at the heart of Judaism. This includes intentional devotions for rising in the morning, eating, leaving home for work, returning home, and ending the day. Strassfeld presents traditional teachings covering these "life moments" as well as material he has written himself. In one of the most substantive sections of the book, the author delineates the meaning of the paths of study, prayer, and loving-kindness. Other chapters cover Jewish festivals, living a life of holiness, and living in the promised land.
We were quite moved by the prayers Strassfeld has created for leaving home and returning at the end of the day. Here's one for leaving:
"O God let me be careful with my speech and my deeds conveying caring rather than hurt to all the lives I touch this day. Let me not get angry unnecessarily, nor judge others harshly. Let me not imagine slights. Let me not be anxious in dealing with those for whom I work. And if necessary to respond critically, let me do so in a clear and calm manner. Let me always try to remember that all of us are flawed and wounded creatures even as we are all created equally in Your image. I hope for success in my striving to earn a living even as I hope that success is not unnecessarily at the expense of others. May the words of my mouth and my inner thoughts this day be acceptable unto You as reflecting that which is holy and best within me, your servant and partner in creation."
This suggestion, that we take a moment to remember who we are as God's partners in the world, is indicative of the spiritual richness of the material in A Book of Life.
Given our interest in everyday spirituality, we were gratified to see Strassfeld's commentary on the nineteenth century musar movement which sought to encourage Jews to develop 13 key character qualities such as patience, zeal, and forgiveness. Men and women were challenged each day to practice a quality and then examine at the end of the day how well they had done. It is interesting to note that whenever religions emphasize spirituality and mysticism, this concern with character development comes to the fore. It suggests that this area is a good meeting ground for interreligious dialogue and shared experiences.
Speaking of character development, Strassfeld even brings fresh air to some age-old admonitions, such as the prohibition of gossip. He writes: "Gossip is prevalent and destructive, yet it seems only realistic to accept it as common practice, like taking sweeteners from restaurants, overeating, or driving just above the speed limit. But imagine for a moment how different the world would be if gossip were to disappear! A gossip-free workplace, for instance, would be spiritually healthy just as a smoke-free workplace is physically healthy. As human beings, created in the image of the Divine, we are ultimately more alike than unalike. Gossip only serves to sidetrack us from confronting both our own goodness and our own flaws."
A Book of Life offers a rich smorgasbord of rituals, ethical insights, and devotional strategies for those seeking to uncover the depth dimensions of everyday life. People of all traditions are sure to find in these pages some concrete practices to bring their spirituality down to earth.