When I was seven, my parents signed me up for swimming lessons. For the first three days, the teacher discussed buoyancy, backstroke, and breathing. We dunked our heads into basins of water and blew bubbles. We never even got our feet wet.
The next weekend my parents took us to a pool. My father, eager to see what I had learned, asked me to demonstrate. I explained that I would need a blackboard. This did not impress my father. He walked me to the deep end of the pool deck, picked me up and promptly threw me into the water. After a moment of shock, I began swimming.
This method of instruction, let alone fathering, may not be in favor today. Personally, I remember feeling rather proud of how quickly I learned to swim. But whatever you think of the methodology, there is a lesson to be learned. The best way to own new information is to apply it. Few of us would want to be operated on by a surgeon who aced his written exams but never wielded a scalpel. There is a reason that driver education courses take place in the car as well as the classroom.
We need both theoretical and practical information. One is mental and spiritual— in our heads. The second, the application of that information, is usually physical and occurs in our interface with the earth and the physical reality it represents.
We humans do best exquisitely balanced between spiritual and physical, suspended between heaven and earth. We must connect to heaven but not to the extent of losing touch with earth. Praying all day while neglecting our jobs and families would be a mistake.
Likewise, we must connect to reality—the earth—but not so overly connected that we ignore spiritual truth. Working all day to provide abundant materialism for our families while neglecting their spiritual needs would be just as much of a mistake.
Even animals deemed kosher and suitable as food for Jews follow this principle.
Kosher animals must have a hoof lifting them off the ground, giving them a touch of spirituality, so to speak. However, if they are utterly isolated from the ground by having a solid hoof, like a horse, for instance, the animal is not kosher.
All who have a split hoof… you shall eat.
Ancient Jewish wisdom places great emphasis on shoes, the human equivalent of hooves. They serve to distance us slightly from the earth, emphasizing our reach towards heaven.
However, we must never lose all touch with the physical world. When God called upon Moses, thus lifting him far into the heavenly realm, He made sure that Moses was also grounded.
…take off your shoes from your feet,
for the place on which you stand is holy ground.
As God’s children we must not live floating in heaven, disconnected from reality, nor should we live anchored to earth and incapable of soaring to spiritual heights. Instead, we must live between heaven and earth—within reach of both but chained to neither.
In our lives, we need information but we also need to be accomplished at applying that information in the real world. Knowing medicine but refusing to heal would be an aberration. Spending years studying business principles but never serving the needs of people would be equally aberrant.
Like swimming, driving and surgery, learning about something doesn’t mean being able to do it. First attempts to apply the knowledge may be faltering and clumsy. But anything worthwhile in life requires effort and work. When we wed the spiritual to the physical and the physical to the spiritual, we maximize our potential.
We have been writing Thought Tools since 2008. Over the years, supported by the American Alliance of Jews and Christians (AAJC), Susan and I have added our Ask the Rabbi column, Susan’s Musings, my podcast, the Ancient Jewish Wisdom TV Show, and recently the Practical Parenting column. Our goal is to encourage the real-life application of ancient Jewish wisdom, helping individuals and society to flourish.
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