As I’m regularly privileged to do, I spent part of this first week of February with 50 rabbis and cantors, some of the 530 alumni of our IJS clergy cohort programs, during our annual Hevraya retreat in Simi Valley, California. First and foremost: We were all okay with the weather. Thankfully, the American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus, where we have long held this retreat, is at a high enough elevation to avoid major flooding. While there were some travel delays, everyone arrived safely. And given all that these spiritual leaders have been holding for themselves and their communities in recent months, it didn’t take long for the weather to become an afterthought.
During this retreat, I found myself reflecting on a talk I listened to recently by one of my favorite teachers, Gil Fronsdal, about the meaning of “retreat.” Gil suggested that the word is a bit of a misnomer, because the label “retreat” suggests that the experience is a pulling back from what’s normal: Our normal world is full of hustle and bustle, but on retreat we do something different, live at a slower rhythm, engage more deeply with ourselves and the world. And while that’s true, Gil suggested that a better label might be “return”–because the truth is that our actual normal is that slower, deeper reality. It’s the fast-paced, surface-level life before and after the “retreat” that we should see as the unusual setting. When we go on retreat, we’re really returning to our truest nature.
The rabbi in me was immediately drawn to this notion of return as teshuva. Every year during Elul and Tishrei, we make a special effort to return, as it were, to our factory settings: to reconnect with what we know to be our deeper nature, the go back to the intentions we know we really have. Throughout that intense period of teshuva, it can feel like we’re on a kind of retreat, and at the end of it we’re remade and reborn.
Yet we don’t have to wait for Tishrei, as evidenced by the retreat/return we held for those spiritual leaders this week. For so many of them, this time has become a sacred period of reconnection, renewal, and rebirth. It’s truly one of my greatest honors and joys that these holy souls trust us to create and hold the container for them to do that returning.
At morning services on Tuesday, Rabbi Hannah Dresner, one of our wonderful alumni, shared a beautiful teaching about Parashat Mishpatim from the Hasidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger’s Sefat Emet (Terumah, 1895). At the end of the Torah portion, Moses ascends into the mountain, where he will stay for 40 days and 40 nights while he receives the Torah. The Sefat Emet picks up on the number of 40 days, which in the mind of the Talmudic sages is the same amount of time it takes after conception for a fetus to be formed in the womb. Putting the two ideas together, he teaches that during his sojourn on the mountain (which was enveloped in cloud, suggesting to the midrashic imagination a womb-like experience), Moses “received an entirely new form”–that is, he was literally transformed, renewed, reborn. And further, through the study of Torah, all of us have a share in Moses’s experience–we can experience our own renewal and transformation too.
I wonder if we might understand this transformation and renewal as of a piece with the return we experience on retreat or during the fall holidays. I wonder if we might think of it as available to us not only through those intensive experiences but even on a weekly basis (Shabbat) and a daily or even moment to moment basis through our mindful return to our intention. As we say in our liturgy, the Divine “renews creation each day.” Likewise, we can, through our practices, experience that renewal, that return to our factory settings, in every time and place.