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As Psalm 94 so succinctly puts it: God knows that human plans are futile. Instead of spending this week learning with Art Green and other teachers on retreat, we came back home to witness the overwhelming destruction swept in by the hurricane. I and the other Institute staff were very, very lucky; we experienced very little of the direct fury of the storm and a great deal of concern and love from so many people from all over the world.
In the midst of the tremendous losses all around, I am noticing the role of waiting. Beginning on Shabbat afternoon before the storm, there was a eerie stillness all around. The air felt heavy, foreboding. I came back to the city on Sunday and had to stock up on food and emergency supplies since I had not expected to be home. The line at the grocery store snaked all around the entire building. The anxiety was palpable, even though it was more than 24 hours before the storm arrived. The stores closed and we all went home to wait.
And now that the winds and rain have stopped, we are still waiting: waiting for the trains to start again, waiting for the roads to be cleared and for airports, schools and businesses to reopen. Some are waiting for electricity and water to be restored and to get back into their damaged homes. There will be waiting for insurance companies and rebuilding.
And there will be waiting for the terrible pain of grief to subside. This must be the most difficult waiting of all.
In his book, “Sailing Home,” Norman Fischer writes, “We all know a crisis when we see it. … But after the dust of frenzied activity settles, and we are finally able to feel our way into what we have been through, we realize just how unhinged we have become. We can’t go back to business as usual, for we sense that we no longer fit into our former life. We need a new life. But we don’t know how to find it. There is nothing else to do right now but stay where we are and wait.”
Sometimes waiting is not simply passivity or wasting time. Sometimes, even though it is frustrating, painful or anxiety-producing, it just takes time to let the things we have experienced work their way through our souls. Waiting too can be holy work.
Of course, there are things to do while we are waiting: reaching out to loved ones and neighbors, contributing money and effort towards taking care of those in need and rebuilding, not to mention voting next week and thinking again about climate change. But those are all human plans. We have an opportunity to remember that sometimes the deep transformation can begin to emerge not from impulsive action, but rather precisely from the slow, difficult work of waiting.
The July retreat season flew quickly by. For me, the hidden jewel of the season was the silent contemplative Shabbat. It combined two things that I treasure as part of my spiritual life: Shabbat and silence.
Shabbat and silence can be surprisingly similar. To the uninitiated, Shabbat can seem like a bunch of rules, mostly involving things you can’t do. But those who regularly observe Shabbat know that the structure of the tradition allows for something magical to happen. By temporarily turning away from the demands of work, entertainment and acquisition, we can make space for experiences of true meaning.
Silence works in a similar way. By temporarily not engaging in social conversation, I make space to find deeper meaning in my own life. My habitual thoughts can rest a little. I give myself time to notice how I am really doing, not just how I want to be doing. What is going on in my heart underneath all the distractions of life? What wisdom can emerge from that knowledge? How does the Divine move through it all?
Some of that I can also do in conversation with someone I trust. But in silence, I don’t have to explain or justify anything to anyone. No one will demand an answer or offer a solution. If I am feeling sad, I can feel sad. If I am feeling alive and grateful, that’s fine. I don’t have to define it or describe it or analyze it. I can just feel it and be it – until it shifts and becomes something else. There is a comfort and a safety in the silence. I can lean into it, knowing it will support me and lead me where I need to go.
It may seem counterintuitive that being quiet with a group of other people who are also in silence is much more powerful than silence alone. And yet, that is true. (At least, that is true for me.) I often feel a strange intimacy and affection for fellow meditators, even when I don’t know any biographical information about them. The silence allows me to remember the fundamentals of being a human being: the longing for love and meaning, the pain of suffering, the inevitable passing of time. The realization that I share those things with every other person becomes a lived experience in silence, not just a beautiful thing to think about.
A silent Shabbat – most coveted of days!
Our July retreat season is underway and what a pleasure it is to gather together in person with our far-flung community at the Trinity Conference Center in beautiful West Cornwall, Connecticut! Our first retreat, which was an open retreat, focused on cultivating gratitude, and our second retreat, which is happening now, is for our seventh cohort of rabbis. Here are a few highlights of the retreat on gratitude:
- An early morning walk by the Housatonic River with banks of orange lilies, sightings of herons and a beaver waddling between the rocks at the river edge.
- Observing how the process of asking questions about the Torah portion – and not answering them – transformed a strange fairy tale with a talking donkey and things happening in threes into profound insights about experiencing Divine guidance and skillful responses to obstacles and ambivalence.
- Watching a whole roomful of people from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds open their hearts in song.
- Exploring real obstacles to gratitude, such as being uncomfortable with receiving from others or confronting challenging situations, and how we and Jews in ages past have tried to overcome these obstacles.
- Savoring trout that was caught that same morning, along with cold mint pea soup, fresh local tomatoes with pesto, salad with raspberries and walnuts, seitan with a ginger sauce, roasted carrots and “white chocolate blackberry dream” (which is exactly what it sounds like).
- Welcoming our beloved Shabbat with radiance and joy.
- Learning that the Hebrew work for “thanking” (lehodot) can also mean “acknowledging” and practicing saying “thank you” or “Yes, this too” to whatever arises, through prayer, yoga, meditation and traditional texts.
- Using freshly picked rosemary, thyme and sage as the spices for Havdallah.
If you were at this retreat (or if you have been at other retreats at Trinity), what have been some of your highlights?