“What’s the best way to utilize my free time?”
That’s the question I asked one of my rabbis at the end of my seminary year. During those months in Jerusalem, I devoted myself wholeheartedly to the study of Jewish texts and the pursuit of spiritual growth.
Only now do I understand why my rabbi responded with a small smile as he gave me ideas to take back when I returned to the United States to start college. He knew what I, at 19, did not yet know: that adulthood came with preoccupations far beyond keeping up with schoolwork. To me, “free time” was something I always have and continually aim to fill with meaning.
During the year I spent studying in Israel, I had the opportunity to reassess my value system, consider how I spent my time, and shift my perspective in so many ways. I made great personal strides through my study of Jewish texts and focus on prayer and my connection with G-d. My “free time” was devoted to personal, spiritual growth; on the rare days when I was not in class, I could spend an entire morning praying at the Kotel or volunteering for a meaningful charity.
When I returned to the U.S. and began my studies at Stern College, I was determined to continue the process of spiritual growth. I carved out time to learn with friends and to quietly assess my spiritual health and prepare for upcoming Jewish holidays. I set aside time to pray.
It’s been a decade since then. The life I carved out for myself upon my return, so laser-focused on my own spiritual and religious growth, has now shifted towards nurturing the physical and spiritual growth of my family. My days are full of logistics — filling lunch boxes, coordinating carpool, bath and bedtime schedules. These moments, at first glance, can seem mundane; they certainly are not moments of intense self-reflection or textual study. When I pray, I often struggle to keep my mind from wandering to the long to-do list constantly rotating in my mind. On the best of weeks I’m able to consistently integrate exercise into my routine. During whatever quiet time I can manage to sneak in, I have to balance keeping a (mostly) clean and organized home and doing the spiritual work I feel is required to keep my life focused.
In the midst of it all, I have this fear of waking up one morning in ten years and wondering to myself whether I missed the point of it all. Did I somehow get lost in the hustle and bustle? Did I miss out on the bigger picture of what Hashem wants of me because my days are such a whirlwind?I am afraid of living an externally “Orthodox” life, checking off all the boxes, but one in which G-d has ceased to truly be the center of my world.
It’s during these moments of concern and personal reflection that I remember the need to continuously cultivate a more expansive understanding of what it means to live a life of service to G-d. Many of the responsibilities I face on a daily basis do not seem, on the surface, spiritual, holy, or inspiring; they are mundane. Still, despite their ordinariness, each activity can provide a significant opportunity for refinement of character and recognition of G-d in the details.
I still strongly value the importance of meaningful prayer and setting aside time for personal reflection. But now, I try to remind myself that spiritual growth need not be limited to formalized learning and introspection. I have had to learn that tending to my responsibilities in life is also a part of my spiritual work in this world and that spiritual growth can become a byproduct of conscious living.
I seek to know G-d in all of the many daily activities that keep my mind and hands preoccupied. I try to engage in my family’s daily routine with kavanah, intention. I seek to find G-d within the hustle bustle, not despite it.