I first met Dr. Lisa Miller in 2017 when she came to speak and do workshops with my community, Valley Beth Shalom. Dr. Miller is Director of the Clinical Psychology program of Columbia University and the primary thrust of her research is in spirituality and clinical practice. Before her lecture she sat in the office with me and a few others and told of an amazing story about how she delved into her work. It involves the subway, a troubled man, a grandmother and of all things, fried chicken.
Dr. Miller shared the story about her ride up to Columbia from lower Manhattan. It was a Sunday, and the subway was packed full of people except for the back part of the car. There, in a space all his own, was a disheveled passenger, his fried chicken lunch spread over his lap and grease running down his chin. The man was agitated, swinging drumsticks in his hand and shouting, “Hey, do you want to sit with me? You want some chicken?” The other passengers gave him a wide berth, ignoring his ovations for company. A few stops later, a grandmother and granddaughter came on the train and stood very close to him. Dr. Miller says they were wearing pretty dresses, their “Sunday’s finest” complete with white gloves. The man spotted the pair and shouted again, “Hey! Do you want to sit with me?”
Without a pause, the grandmother and granddaughter looked at each other.
Then they said in unison, “Thank you,” as they walked calmly over to him and sat down. Soon after, the man asked if they wanted chicken; they said, “No thank you,” and nodded at each other again. The man calmed down, and ate the rest of the lunch. A few stops later, the pair of women departed.
As Dr. Miller describes it, the entire subway car was in shock, including the man No one expected that he deserved to be engaged or to calm his nerves. The disturbed man was surprised by the engagement, the lack of fear in their eyes, and their politeness. A sense of equanimity settled over the car, leaving Dr. Miller with a pressing question, What just happened?
She related this story to me and it has become a cornerstone of her research, published in her seminal work, The Spiritual Child. She finds that a shared sense of spirituality between parent and child lowered incidence of depression, addiction and risk-taking by 80 percent. This shared sense of a spiritual connection, the nod between parent and child, is four times more powerful than sociological demographics like wealth, three times more powerful than medication, and twice as powerful than favorable family functioning or parenting style. Basically, a shared sense of spirituality is more powerful than medical science, “woke” parenting or privilege.
All that, she found, in a nod.
The nod on the subway between a beloved elder and a child is at the heart of spirituality. In that one moment was the passing of one generation to the next a shared understanding of the extraordinary embedded in the ordinary. With a nod, the grandmother was ensuring that her granddaughter knew the interplay between the cosmic and the relational, the world beyond and the world as it is presented, the supernal narrative of love and the immediate need to be loved. The correspondence between wisdom and faith on the one hand, and the harsh reality of life on the other, gives the soul hope, resilience, and courage when it is needed most.
This is exactly the lesson buried within the Exodus story in this week’s Torah portion, Bo. As the plagues arrive to the moment of their greatest climax and ferocity, as the darkness spreads across the land and the mysterious Angel of Death lurks in the shadows ready to take life, the Israelites gather to ponder their future. On that night of the Passover when the Israelites are huddled in small family groups, sandals on and staffs in hand, it is on that eve the Torah shifts to a future time, when children are sitting with their parents and and ask, “What does this ceremony mean to you?” then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” (Ex. 12: 26-27) The Bible uses precious ink to pause the epic of the Exodus to focus our attention on the intergenerational conversation, thousands of years later, between parent and child.
The back and forth between the national and the personal and between the past and the future happens twice more in this week’s reading. Again, the Torah says, “On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Ex. 13: 8) and when the child asks, “What does this mean?” say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’” (Ex. 13: 14) These lines are so powerful that they form one of the pillars of the Passover Seder ritual, the story of the four children who ask about the sacraments of the holiday. The Exodus story is not just a social narrative about a people long ago; it is a narrative meant to be lived every day in moments between parents, children and community. Living spiritually means living in the moment and living out a grand narrative. You can live in ancient Egypt and in Los Angeles at the same time. You are both ancient and modern. You live from the past, and into the future.
What Dr. Miller found in her research exists already in the power of Torah. To show that transcendence is always an intimate experience, and when we choose to see the world through God’s eyes, we stave off the darkness in our own hearts and live generationally beyond our own lifetimes. Whether you are on the subway or around the dinner table, the Torah is there to be the foundation of your spiritual life.