Sedona is a small town nestled amid the red-rock canyons and cactus bushes of Arizona. Fifteen years ago, with the exception of a few experts on American Indians, nobody had heard of it. Today, Sedona is one of the leading tourist attractions in America, drawing approximately three million visitors a year. Tens of millions of dollars in revenue are generated annually.

What made the difference? An audio tape by a self-styled spiritualist which describes seven “vortexes of spiritual energy” located in the rock formations around the community. The tape spawned a new legend. People came searching for paranormal psychic phenomena, deeper spiritual experience, and some meaning and inner peace in their lives. In doing so, they made Sedona the “capital of the New Age.”

The majority of these visitors are not ’60s holdovers or East or West Coast intellectuals. Most are members of middle America: schoolteachers, retired businessmen, and veterinarians, the kinds of people who could be my neighbor or yours. They are not all under 40. Quite the contrary, among them are grandmothers and grandfathers.

And Sedona is not an isolated phenomenon. Over 25 million Americans, approximately one tenth of the nation’s population, profess to be involved in New-Age spirituality — a combination of myth, mystery, and metaphysics which promises supernatural healing, one-on-one communication with G‑d, and the development of extra-sensory perception.

What is at the core of this phenomenon? Loneliness. Overwhelmed by the torrent of raw data in our high-tech society, people are seeking to get back in touch with their human side. Even purely business-oriented books urge an attempt to balance the material advances of technology with the spiritual demands of human nature.

People want deeper meaning in their lives. They are seeking to reawaken a lost sense of community in their relations with others, and regain the inner security that comes from living with a spiritual purpose.

Such desires have kindled a greater sensitivity to spiritual awareness, with ramifications on many levels. To cite a conspicuous example: Even the most mainstream medical practitioners have come to appreciate the existence of a link between body and soul.

But there is a fundamental difficulty. This search for spirituality has a freelance, even entrepreneurial dimension to it. It is belief without structure, a supermarket of spiritual ideas lumped together, as individuals attempt to define spirituality in their own way.

And one cannot ignore the business aspect of it. Without mentioning the millions made by gurus and evangelists, the fact is that “how-to” books on personal growth and prepackaged spiritual awareness programs are big business. And a lot of that money is made by catering to people’s weaknesses and insecurities; the spiritual “guides” know they are not providing real answers.

What’s more, although the desire for community is a positive thing, in practice, it often covers a longing to be accepted easily, to be held in someone’s arms, and to hold someone else, instead of having to compete in a cold society. And this “feel-good” sense of community often has little to do with authentic compassion or real personal sacrifice.

In short, the spiritual quest all too often becomes a search for the individual high, a catharsis of inner yearning instead of an ongoing, systematic process of development. In the 60s, members of the drug culture used to say that because Americans are such a materialistic people, G‑d put spirituality into chemicals. Twenty-five years later, real progress has been made. On the whole, people are no longer depending on chemicals for spiritual highs, and have realized that growth must come from increased awareness. But still, this awareness is usually thought of as coming from above, descending upon us and bestowing unearned bliss.

Learn the lesson of the soda bottle: No deposit, no return.

We can’t expect spiritual growth and awareness to come by itself. A harvest cannot be reaped without sowing seeds. There is no such thing as spirituality without sacrifice. Self-discipline, the courage to face oneself, and good old-fashioned work are keys to growth.

But they are not the only ones. One of the most frequently quoted stories in Jewish thought is Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s tale of the Khazar king’s dream.1 The Khazars were a successful nation living in Mid-Asia. Their king wanted to develop the moral fiber of his people and advance himself spiritually. But every night he was haunted by a recurring dream. It was as if an angel was telling him: “G‑d appreciates your intent, but not your deeds.”

The dream spurred the king to even greater efforts. He studied and labored to improve his spiritual service. Nevertheless, he continued to receive the same message. So he invited sages from the world’s three great religions to teach him the essence of their faiths, and ultimately took the never-ending path called Judaism.

The story teaches a profound lesson: A person can be willing, and can even make substantial sacrifices, but to borrow an expression from our Sages:2 “A man in fetters cannot set himself free.”

The realization that there exists an eternal, spiritual Truth beyond the limits of ordinary human experience is an important first step, but only if it prompts a second: To seek out a spiritual path that has proven its effectiveness over the course of time.

Seeking such direction is necessary, for by definition, there is a gap separating the material from the spiritual. As mortals, we know that the spiritual exists, and can even appreciate that we have a spark of it within us,3 but in terms of our conscious experience, it is distant from us. On his own initiative, a finite man has no means to establish common ground with an infinite G‑d.

The nature of this schism and how to bridge it is the subject of a unique teaching of the Midrash:4

King David taught: “The Holy One, blessed be He, decreed:5 ‘The heavens are the heavens of G‑d, and the Earth He gave to men.’”

To what can this be compared? To a king who decrees that the inhabitants of Rome may not descend to Syria, and the inhabitants of Syria may not ascend to Rome.

Nevertheless, when [G‑d] gave man the Torah, He nullified that decree and said: “The lower realms will ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms will descend to the lower realms. And I will begin.” As it is written:6 “And G‑d descended on Mount Sinai,” and “to Moses He said: ‘Ascend to G‑d.’”

G‑d “reached down” into the world, giving us His Torah so that we could establish a bond with Him. The large majority of the Torah’s teachings focus, not on prayer or worship, but on agricultural laws, marriage, family, and business relations. And yet, “the Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, are One.”7 Even as it deals with the mundane realities of our material environment, the Torah is one with G‑d.

Thus by establishing a bond with the Torah, a person establishes a bond with his Maker. To borrow an analogy of our Rabbis,8 it is like embracing a monarch. Although one feels the king’s garments and not his actual flesh, one is nonetheless holding the king, and being held by him.9

Also significant is the Midrash’s statement that it is G‑d who says, “I will begin.” The Torah is an incursion by G‑d into man’s world, for only that could make possible man’s entry into G‑d’s.

The Torah is intended not merely to give man the opportunity of establishing a bond with G‑d, but also to make the world G‑dly, as our Sages stated:10 “The Torah was given solely to refine the created beings.” Thus we find a parallel between the Ten Commandments and the Ten Utterances of Creation. For the Torah is intended to permeate Creation, and connect it to G‑dliness.11

In that context, we can understand our Sages’12 division of the six millennia of recorded history into 2,000 years of chaos, 2,000 years of involvement with the Torah, and 2,000 years of [concern with] the Era of Mashiach. The Torah represents the eternal uplifting of all things ordered from all things chaotic — a medium through which man can find the pattern and establish meaning within the hubbub of material existence, and thus bring about the ultimate fulfillment that will characterize the Era of Redemption.

Moreover, it is not only that the Torah was given to enable the world to blossom; it is in itself the blossoming.

Maimonides portrays the Era of Redemption as a time when the underlying goal of all human activity will be the perfect observance of the Torah and its mitzvos.13 For this reason, after negating the notion that Mashiach must work miracles,14 Maimonides writes:15 “The essence of the matter is: This Torah, its statutes and its laws, are everlasting.”

For the Torah is communication between G‑d and man. At present, we have only a limited awareness of the G‑dly truth the Torah conveys. In the Era of Redemption, its spiritual dimensions will be openly revealed, and the occupation of the entire human race will be solely to know G‑d.16

The Jews will take their place as “a nation of priests,”17 and will know the hidden matters, attaining an understanding of the Creator to the full extent of human potential; as it is written:18 “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”