It is interesting that it took a snowstorm to turn New York City into Jerusalem on a Friday evening.
Like many people who have spent time in Jerusalem, one of things I love the most is the way Friday afternoons come into the Jewish parts of the city. Bit by bit, the stores close and the roads empty out. The sounds of the usual bustle begin to subside and a calm begins to pervade the squares and streets. By the time the sun sets over the plain below, it can feel like the whole city has taken a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Last Friday, with the approach of Snowstorm Nemo, New York City could have been Jerusalem. Sleet was falling in the afternoon and people began leaving, getting to where they would stay for the duration of the storm. Even in Midtown, where our office is, bit by bit, there were fewer cars, less honking and sirens. We closed the office a little early. And by the time the snow began to fall in earnest, later in the evening, as I was on my way to Shabbat dinner, there was a magical hush everywhere. The streets were mostly empty except for people walking, some with their dogs. The glow from the strings of left-over holiday lights caught the softly falling snow. The usually frantic city felt soothed and quiet.
One of the things I love about New York City is the wonderful energy and astonishing abundance of people and buildings and things to do and see and eat and explore. There is usually no stopping it or even any desire to stop it. But on this Erev Shabbat, it seemed like the city shavat vayinafash – stopped and took a breath.
By Shabbat morning the sun was shining and the sky was blue. I made my way to Central Park to explore the snowy woods and to watch the kids (of all ages!) playing in the snow. New York was returning to itself: noisy, colorful, vibrant. Yet, the magic of the snow stayed all through Shabbat. It wasn’t until Sunday that there was more gray slush than pristine fields of snow – just in time for a new workaday beginning to the week.
I find it so curious that the Jewish year begins with almost an entire month’s worth of holidays, each one with its own flavor, building upon the one before. We have the sweet awe of Rosh Hashanah, the intense internality of Yom Kippur, the joy and vulnerability of Sukkot, the ecstatic connection to learning on Simchat Torah. It is quite a spiritual journey – and can be exhausting! I hear many people expressing relief that the holidays are “finally” behind us.
Which brings us to that seemingly flat time of “after the holidays.” Life is back to normal (whatever that means). We return to the routine and the steadily increasing darkness of the Northern Hemisphere’s approaching winter. Next week we begin the new month of Heshvan, the famous month of no holidays. Sometimes it is known as “Marheshvan,” with a connotation of mar or bitterness. There is no external reason to celebrate; there is nothing obviously interesting or intriguing about it. In some ways, the whole month is the continuation of Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, which has only one unique feature in the Diaspora: the prayer for rain for the Land of Israel.
And yet, in some ways, these weeks are actually the fruitful time of the year, not the dramatic holiday season just ended. We get to begin living out what we thought, embodying the insights, intentions and hopes for the new year. We get to begin translating the lofty visions into messy, ever-surprising life. It may be dark; it may be rainy; it may be unexciting. But moving from the potential to the actual is filled with power and possibility.
This is precisely where spiritual practice has the most to offer, in offering perspective and wisdom when confronted with difficulty and in guiding us towards more kindness, responsibility, gratitude and integrity. It can even help us find the unexpected shining in ordinary things. There is nothing bitter about that!
Wishing everyone a mindful transition back to the everyday!
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?
It was cool and drizzly when I left my apartment one morning last week, wearing my spring raincoat, but by mid-afternoon, it was sunny and warm. At the end of the day, I walked out of the office, leaving my coat on the rack outside my office door. I rode the crowded subway to my stop, dropped in at the grocery story to pick up a couple of things, and as I started to cross the street to my apartment, all of a sudden, I knew.
The keys to my apartment were not in my bag. They were in the pocket of my raincoat, hanging on the coat rack outside my office door.
I know that moment so well, that mental click from forgetting to remembering. It’s a cold, jarring sensation. It’s the jolt that accompanies waking up in meditation or suddenly knowing the right word for the crossword puzzle. In American Sign Language, it’s the popping up of the index finger in the sign for “understanding.” I think it must be related to the burst of the sephirah chochmah, the flash of creative insight that wasn’t there a moment ago.
The stories that accompany remembering can vary. It can be the exasperation and self-judgment that focuses on the forgetting. (“I am such an idiot! Now I have to get back on the subway, go all the way back to the office and then retrace my steps again!”) Or it can be marveling at the mind’s ability to wake up, even when it used to be asleep. (“How amazing that I remembered before I actually reached into my bag to find my keys!”) It can even be compassion. (“Our poor brains! Think of all the things that bombard us day in and day out! No wonder we forget so much. How else would we survive?”)
For me, the small, inconvenient act of forgetting and remembering spurred me to consider: what else have I forgotten? Have I remembered to be grateful for owning a key and a raincoat, for having the physical strength to get back on the subway, for having an office and a job, for walking through the early evening light in New York City with the thousands of other people, each with their own hopes and disappointments and stories?
So much of spiritual practice is about remembering to remember.